Objects


Some years ago the comedian George Carlin had a routine about the word "stuff." He pointed out how we always have to go and get our "stuff." "I'll be right with you, as soon as I get my stuff." "Hey, where'd you put my stuff?" "I don't know. Is this your stuff in the corner?"
Right? When we get ready to go to work in the morning, don't we first make sure we've got our stuff? Or we put all our stuff in the car and go off on a long weekend. It seems we human beings seldom are empty-handed.

Certainly not when we come here together on Sunday. We Catholics bring our stuff along. In fact, should we come empty handed we would have to do something other than the eucharist together because the eucharist needs human stuff. It isn't some abstraction, some pleasant act of imagination. It is the Catholic people bringing some stuff with them for their assembly.

First there is the stuff we have but could do without in a pinch. The furniture, for example. We have these benches and chairs and pews where we sit. The church did without those for most of its history, and in fact they often keep us from being an active assembly. There is also this place here, this piece of furniture called the pulpit or lectern or ambo, from which the word is read and the homily preached. It is useful and should be built to give good service and show respect for the word of God that is proclaimed here. But we could get by without it.

The two pieces of furniture we would have the hardest time doing without are the font and the table. The font holds the water, the table the bread and wine. They have important work to do, and in our tradition, each - the font and the table - has itself come to be an image of God's presence. They should be so worthily made and maintained that they bear the weight of their task. The font must present itself as the womb from which Christians are born, the tomb in which the old self is buried. And the altar is called by Christ's name, is kissed in reverence as the liturgy begins and ends, for it serves to center our community in the praise of God as we make the eucharistic prayer and partake of the holy communion.

But in a pinch, we could do without the font. Christians have always baptized in streams and rivers and bathhouses and wherever water was available in large quantities. And we could do without the table. Christians have used the table of the earth itself, the floors of prisons, and tiny tables in hospitals. When we have a place where a stable congregation assembles each Sunday, then we want to give attention to the font and the table. What stuff is essential here? What do we have to have? Probably only three things. We need our book, our bread, and our wine.

First, our book. The book that is called the lectionary (meaning a book of readings) is brought into this room at the beginning of the liturgy, held high. It contains the readings from scripture arranged in order for the seasons and Sundays of the year. Already at the time of Jesus, it was the practice for Jewish people to gather and read from their scriptures. That reading would be the beginning point for commentary and discussion. The followers of Jesus continued to carry with them the holy scriptures, gradually adding the Gospels and the letters that we call the New Testament. In the assemblies of Christians the book would be opened and the scriptures read aloud. And that has been our tradition always.

The church - this church right here today - goes nowhere without the scriptures. The church never passes a Sunday without gathering and opening the book for public reading. The words that we read are arranged in an order. We don't decide that we would like to hear this or that reading today. We follow the order of the Lectionary, reading slowly through the Gospels, the letters, and some - but too few - parts of the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament. We don't make up our faith new every Sunday. Rather, we carry this book to the church every Sunday. We hold the Gospel book high in our processions, and it is honored with incense on special days, and it is kissed each Sunday after the Gospel. It is just this humble thing - just some ink on some paper, bound up and sewn together - but for us it is our access to the word of God: "To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life."

Bread and wine are the other necessities. Sometimes, when the church has been powerful and rich, it has seemed to be almost embarrassed about these two ordinary substances. Then, we brought out vessels of silver and gold, sparkling with jewels even. And we treated the bread and wine as if we wished they would disappear altogether. The bread lost the look of bread, the smell of bread, the texture of bread, and the taste of bread. And the wine would ordinarily be one swallow for one person, and that swallow would be hidden in the bottom of a large and heavy chalice.

In the last generation that began to change - slowly. This simple bread, made without any ingredients except flour and water, this bread of the very poor, now sometimes does look like bread and taste like bread. And the wine, the drink that brings delight and lifted spirits to our tables, is there at more and more liturgies to be seen, smelled, taken by all in the holy communion.

Bread and wine challenge most of us. We are used to fast foods and foods made from many ingredients and sometimes exotic foods. But here are the foods of a common table, the same for rich and poor, old and young, women and men: one and all invited and commanded - take and eat - to have a piece broken from the one loaf of bread, one and all invited - take and drink - to put the common cup to our lips and taste and see.

Isn't it strange - almost funny, almost a scandal - that in the center of our Sunday assembly, at the very heart of what we do together week after week to manifest and to make strong our faith, at the center of this is a table with nothing costly, nothing rare, nothing of any real note at all on it, but just enough bread for all to taste, just enough wine for all to have a sip?

How then do we handle this bread and this wine? They are brought forward with simple reverence because they are the "fruit of the earth and the work of human hands." They are both: fruit of the earth is God's doing, but work of human hands is ours. In worthy vessels - a plate, a large cup - they rest on the table around which we stand to give God praise and thanks in the memory of Jesus' death and resurrection. We pray that "they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ." Then we process to the table with song and answer Amen to the proclamation: "The body of Christ." "The blood of Christ."

Everything else is secondary to the book, the bread, and the wine. But secondary is not unimportant. When we have candles, when we have the cross, when we have incense or banners, when we have a certain vesture for those with responsibilities to the assembly, when we have vessels for the water that is used to sprinkle us during Eastertime and vessels for our money when it is collected - all of these and anything else we use are to express the grace and the beauty and very often the simplicity that we meet in our book, our bread, and our wine. How we handle these objects here is not to be measured by some sacredness that comes with their being used in the liturgy. Rather, how we handle them is to reflect and to build up how we handle all the work of creation and all the work of human hands. Fifteen centuries ago, Saint Benedict told his followers to treat the vessels of the kitchen as they would the vessels of the altar. That is exactly the point. Here we learn how to live day by day with the wonder and beauty of God's work and our own.

Copyright © 1992, Gabe Huck. Used by permission.