Each Sunday we practice Eucharist in a very stylized, symbolic way. But what are we really doing there? We are celebrating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, giving thanks and then remembering him through the sharing of the holy feast. We remember him not as a memory that we recall in our mind only, but by taking him into us physically. And somewhere within that mystery, our lives get intertwined with his and we are transformed in the process; becoming his arms, legs, ears, eyes, and hands in the world. We are then sent out to feed others in body and spirit. That basic rhythm of meeting Jesus at the table happens whenever we gather, give thanks and break bread in the name of Jesus, but it doesn’t happen just in a church.
A few weeks ago, I was finding myself at one of ECS’s Safe Haven programs, a transitional housing program for folks who suffer from mental illness and would otherwise be on the streets. I was feeling petty awkward coming into their home each evening. I couldn’t not help but feel as if I were butting in in some ways. They had never had a chaplain who visited on a regular basis and I hadn’t been introduced to the house in anyway (as this was all new for ECS as well and the managers were vacationing at the time). So I introduced myself, explained that I was a seminarian from St. Paul’s Cathedral (across the street) and that I would be visiting each week just to “hang out” and get to know them. While that wasn’t much of an explanation, that seemed to be enough for most folks and they welcomed me and thanked me for being there. So while everyone was nice, I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward at first. I felt like I needed to break the ice somehow. When I heard some of the residents mention that it had been so long since they had had a hamburger that I thought – ah ha! Let’s do a BBQ! (ECS provides the house with breakfast lunch and dinner for all the residents but they apparently don’t do burgers.)
I did a quick trip to Costco and picked up some large burgers, some bratwursts and wheeled over a BBQ from the Cathedral. We fired up the grill and people pitched in by putting out various condiments and fixings. Once of the cool things about a BBQ is that it is more than just eating, it’s an event. People can gather around and converse, ask to get their onions grilled or their burger well done. And it takes time which means we had time for conversation, laughs and the opportunity to build a sense of community that had not been there previously (at least for me as the newcomer).
The food was very much appreciated but more than that, when word got out that I had brought over the BBQ on my own accord and out of my own pocket (rather than a normal meal provided by the house) the reaction was unexpected. They were amazed that I had gone out of my way to bring over dinner. So accustomed were they to having the house staff do dinner, they just assumed I was part of that. While I certainly wasn’t looking for any particular appreciation or credit, when they learned this was a gift from me, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it seemed to make people relax. This wasn’t a house meal paid for by staff, this was a true gift of hospitality, freely offered out of a desire to build relationship. The spirit of our little gathering changed in some way. Instead of eating and returning to their rooms for example, people hung around and talked. It became a gathering rather than just eating.
After we had finished eating and cleaning up, one of the residents offered to wash my feet. She wanted to do something for me and that was all she could offer. Of course my first reaction was to say, “thanks but there’s no need to do anything in return” this was really a completely free will offering with no need to reciprocate. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer and so I (reluctantly) accepted.
Having been through more than a few Maundy Thursday foot washing rituals, I realized that it was important to receive as much as to give, but still, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get so close so soon in my introduction to the house – it’s an intimate thing to let another person wash your feet. And then I realized, that’s exactly what I needed to do! Something happens when love isn’t just given, but received as well. I just needed to get my hang-ups out of the way and just see what would happen. So I sat back and let this woman wash my feet. And indeed it was very moving. To have someone who has so little do something for me in this intimate way, was very powerful. We ended by praying together and giving thanks. It I could not have been a lovelier ending to the day.
Upon reflecting on the experience, it occurred to me that somewhere in the midst of that, in the mystery of that meal, our gathering and the washing of feet, we too had gotten mixed up with Jesus. We too had become his members to each other that day as we fed one another in body and spirit. Without expecting it, we had remembered Jesus that night.
Chris Harris is Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and postulant for holy orders. His passion is helping people integrate their faith and a sense of call into all aspects of their lives -- workplace, finances and relationships -- while designing a life of purpose and mission. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with him on Facebook