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
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
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
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.