Behold, the Body of Christ

• To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name or here to see a list of her columns.

Because of my ministries I have never lived near relatives or my grade school friends as their children grew up. Recently my cousin moved to Lansing, Michigan, not too far from Detroit. One of her many grandchildren was making his first Holy Communion, and I was invited to attend. I accepted, and as I drove on this beautiful Saturday morning I found myself filling up with tears.

The night before I was catching up with reading a few TIME magazines. What I read caused a painful juxtaposition for me. First, was the picture of these 7- and 8-year-old girls dressed in white dresses and the boys dressed in good looking suits receiving for the first time the Eucharist. They are surrounded by their parents and other relatives wishing to celebrate with them. Second, was the picture the TIME articles painted for me of 7- and 8-year-old girls and boys being used as suicide bombers for the Boko Haram, as well as girls of this age alongside their mothers, grandmothers and infant sisters being brutally raped and assaulted by soldiers in South Sudan (in issues dated April 25 and April 18, respectively).

I couldn't stop seeing all of these children and feeling both the joy and the incredible horror and pain that are part of their lives. Yet, as I took a long, loving look at this reality I saw that all of this is part of making one's First Holy Communion. When we take the Eucharist for the first time we are becoming part of the larger community in a more intimate way. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, we are saying that we are willing to grow into the person God desires us to be. We are setting ourselves on a path toward "wholeness" or holiness which will invite us to embrace the brutal realities that are part of our world and the remnants of such violence that live within us. We are committing ourselves to live in communion with all life; which is to live in solidarity with the oppressed, excluded and exploited, and to help sustain our Earth home.

When we eat the bread and drink the wine we are receiving Christ and becoming Christ for others. Theologian, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes that the actual presence of Christ so changes a person that he/she is made one with the others, creating active love which seeks the common good of all.

We actually become a new body, Christ's body. Listen to the words of Beatrice Bruteau:

"Here is bread, the fundamental food, our body. If I break it, so, and give it to you, saying 'This is my body, my life, eat it, receive it into yourself and live by it,' can you perceive how this is really true? . . . What was my body will be your body. . . . Let us do it with the wine, too. . . . Drink it and live! It is a single cup; share it among you. It is a common life among us all. . . . . And do you see what happened? We have come together in our sharing, in our indwelling, in such a way that we form a new being composed of us as its limbs and organs. This is the kingdom of God. . . ."

We are the mystical Body of Christ opening ourselves to the transforming power of love. Our first Holy Communion set us on a path to a radically different way of living everyday life. Given the realities facing us it may seem, as Moe-Lobeda writes, "that communities of faith are called to the seemingly impossible — called to justice-seeking love in a world of structured injustice — then life with God must offer the moral-spiritual power to heed the call."

The structured injustice of war, violence, sexual exploitation of women and girls, and the rape of Mother Earth at times seems overwhelming. Yet we stand facing these injustices not in despair but in hope.

As I drove that Saturday morning, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Mass of the World flashed before me. In that powerful prayer, when Teilhard finds himself in the steppes of Asia without bread, wine or altar, he makes the whole Earth his altar and offers up all the labors and sufferings of this world. Having seen enough violence during World War I, Teilhard gathered into his prayer the "restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts of even of those whose faith is most firm. . . ."

Today I believe we bring all those who perpetrate violence as well as all the victims to our communion table. We stand in communion with them, for them. We believe as Teilhard that what is God's desire "is nothing less than the growth of the world borne ever onwards in the stream of universal becoming." In his offering of the bread and wine he sees in its depths "a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out believer and unbeliever alike: 'Lord, make us one.'"

I suspect it is a bit much to expect 7- and 8-year-olds to receive their first Holy Communion aware of all of this. If I'm honest, I'm not always aware either. It makes me wonder if perhaps every celebration of the Eucharist is actually one's first Holy Communion. It is the "I" of this present moment who recommits her/his self to the transforming power of Christ, who surrenders to the living God within and offers her/his self to others and the world. Let us pray every day: Behold, this is, we are, the Body of Christ.

[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.