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Terrance KleinAugust 08, 2018

It is a perfectly ordinary question. It’s just that the situation seemed so extraordinary. “How are you doing, Father?” Did I detect a mischievous delight in Nancy? Was she impishly pleased to have asked me the question before I posed it to her? Nancy is at home, in hospice care, dying from a cancer she has fought for 11 years.

She has done it more than once—asked about me before I could ask about her, forcing me to stutter up an answer. It is one of the many things that I admire about Nancy. So often the sick and the dying are turned into passive receivers of care and concern. Doctors order changes in their protocols. Nurses ask them to turn this way and that, to hold still. Visitors enter with prepared words of comfort and cheer that they struggle to deliver.

“How are you doing, Father?” seems to be Nancy’s way of saying: “I’m dying, but I’m still a person. I’m still one who can and does give to others, one who still lives with concern for others.”

Before Christ feeds us in sacrament, he feeds us in his person.

In the three years that I have visited her, I’ve always regained enough composure to ask about Nancy’s life but only after making a sincere effort to answer her question about my own. She deserves that. Nancy would then outline the onerous new treatments and the setbacks, all of which she has always presented as challenges that must simply be overcome.

It astounded and concerned me a bit that Nancy, the former primary school teacher, could cover all of this with such optimism as if she were only outlining what the class was going to do this week. Was her cheer a way of denying reality? I have come to think it wasn’t. Hopefulness and good cheer have always been her way of life. Why should she abandon them because her life is coming to a close?

Nancy was quite candid about beginning hospice care. “This is it, Father. Now we wait for the end.” I wondered if this announced a turning point. Would Nancy’s conviviality fold up, like a show that closes? Had she reached her Elijah moment? “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers”(1 Kgs 19:4).

We cannot be church, cannot have the Eucharist, without being fed by one another.

Instead, Nancy told me, “We stayed up late last night, playing Scrabble.” Now in hospice care, her home has filled with family and friends. Through three years of illness, I have never seen her in bed. She is always in her living room. These days I seem to push my way toward her chair or couch like someone backstage after a concert. I know that the star will take time to see me, once I get to the front.

Is Scrabble with her guests a ludicrous expenditure of energy? I think that it is Nancy’s way of saying: All of you matter to me. I must attend to you, as you attend to me. We are here for each other. Each of us is essential to the others, unique and irreplaceable. That is what it means to be family and friends.

I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world (Jn 6:51).

In Catholicism, we are naturally and appropriately concerned to emphasize the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. So we immediately link these words to our reception of Christ in holy Communion. But we need to remember that Jesus says this first of all about himself, about who he is in the midst of us. Before he feeds us in sacrament, he feeds us in his person. Simply put, Jesus is like Nancy, someone who offers herself.

Others are the table Christ sets for us.

Instead of seeing the church as a pyramid, with Christ and the Holy Father at the apex and everyone else occupying some particular spot, someplace farther down the slope of the pyramid, partaking of a smaller portion of Christ, what if we truly believed that Christ is entirely present in each one of us? That, save for the effects of sin, Christ isn’t lacking, isn’t insufficient in any one of us.

We need each other to be each other in Christ. We need to recognize and to reverence the Christ who is revealed in each one of us. Diversity isn’t something to be overcome. It is the overflowing, the outpouring of the Spirit. It is not that differences do not exist or do not matter. It is that they do not and cannot limit Christ. Through all of us, he is fully present in all of us. None of us exhausts who Christ is, none of us can claim to possess him. As the very mystery that we call God, Christ is always more than we can grasp, individually and collectively.

A few days ago Nancy hosted a tea party, fulfilling a promise that she made to friends a long time ago. She happily showed me the photo of her ladies, bonneted and wearing white gloves, gathered at a lace-covered table. Nancy sits at one end of the table, wearing the “marvelous mink stole” she found at a garage sale. She is Christ, assembling her chosen band, assuring them that she feeds them, just as they feed her.

Christ is our bread of life. He feeds us in word and sacrament. And he feeds us, quite deliberately, undeniably and indelibly in each one of us. That is why the Eucharist is not something one does alone. We cannot be church, cannot have the Eucharist, without being fed by one another. Others are the table Christ sets for us.

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8 Ephesians 4:30-5:2 John 6:41-51

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Tim Donovan
5 years 8 months ago

At the nursing home where I live, I have a friend who receives hospice care, and often find it difficult to talk to her. However, we enjoy talking about our interest in books, television shows, and family. While her attitude isn't always sunny, she has great faith and fortitude, and is looking forward to the the birth of her daughter's baby. I try to see Jesus in other people, by trying to see the best in others. I need help from nurses for my health needs, but like helping other residents with needs that they can't perform for themselves. I agree that while we're all equal in God's eyes, that priests have the gift of changing bread into the Body of Christ. Aside from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I believe that the Eucharist is the Sacrament of greatest power. I receive Jesus in Holy Communion when I feel worthy, with the community of the faithful.

JR Cosgrove
5 years 8 months ago

I learned something on Sunday that I never realized before. Two Sundays ago I went to a local parish for Mass and the pastor in a brief sermon said the normal gospels (Mark series B) were being replaced by John's gospel of the "Bread" for four weeks. The first of the gospels is the story of the loaves and fishes and how a little can feed everyone for a meal. While in New Hampshire a priest from Italy explained the gospel of the "Bread of Life" and how Jesus can feed everyone for ever. The loaves and fishes story was a setup/lead in for the Bread of Life doctrine. I never connected the two before.

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