The great gift of community
Over the past two weeks my husband and I have gone to a different Mass at our parish church rather than the one which we usually attend. We have become accustomed to the Saturday night Mass and know many people there either by name or at least by recognition. It feels very much like home because we are used to the warmth of these people and the act of worshipping with them regularly. But attending a different Mass at our church these past weeks has brought blessings that were somewhat unexpected. Not only has it reminded me that we are part of a wider community, but as a result of being at a different Mass, we happened across two ‘milestone’ celebrations* involving friends and their families. I do not believe in coincidences, so obviously the Holy Spirit had something to teach. First, I was recognizing the joy of being able to be there with our good friends and their families. But the most important realization was the reminder that the entire community is an incredibly important gift.
At the beginning of the Sunday liturgy, I caught the eye of my friend who was part of this morning’s ‘milestone celebration’ and I felt a wave of joy go through me. It was not just a happy feeling because we were sharing the event with these friends, but it was the joy of celebrating with our entire community. I felt joy because there was a great connection even though I did not know everyone who was in the church. I could not help but think of what it will be like in Heaven some day when we are celebrating God’s love and the joy of being with Him forever: we will be in connection with the entire community in a deeper, fuller way. I know our Church and its people are not perfect and I know as much as I enjoyed it, the liturgy we were celebrating was not perfect. I especially know that I am not perfect, not by a long shot. However, this is our community, our parish family, and it is part of the larger Body of Christ. Therefore, the Church is made holy by the love which holds us together, namely the presence of Jesus Christ. This love is what we celebrated at Easter and it is what we continue to celebrate throughout our lives.
Community is indeed a gift. It is the fulfillment and perfection of this community for which we long, in fact. For those of us who are believers, we yearn to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven when we die so that we may be reunited with those who have gone before us, and as one Body, have everlasting life, worshipping and glorifying God, becoming fully who we were created to be. We will have all this, drenched in God’s mercy and love.
Every time we come together at Mass or any service in which two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, we are being given a foretaste of what is to come. But because we are human and all is imperfect, we can lose sight of this. For example, it is easy to become distracted by a banner on the wall because it is hanging a bit crooked or to detect a small ‘glitch’ that took place in the ritual. But in fact, that is part of why we are there: not to get stuck in our thoughts, but to realize that we are not perfect yet, and therefore we need this worship and we need this community in order to pray each other into the Kingdom. We are not there to simply receive the Word or Eucharist in some sort of vacuum. Rather we are there to celebrate the wonder of God’s unfathomable love and mercy, all while recognizing that it is because we are so imperfect that we need to come and be fed. It is not merely out of obligation that we come. Yes, it is our ‘Sunday obligation,’ but we are there because we love God and are grateful for all He gives us; we are there because we are in awe of the depth of His love and mercy; we are there because we need the wisdom and grace given in Word and Sacrament; we are there because we need our brothers and sisters such that we pray not only together, but for one another, and especially for those in the wider community and in the world; we are there because it inspiring to be with other people who are also working to grow in sanctity. We go to worship precisely because we need it to grow and thrive as Christians, inviting others into the community because we share the gift we have received. Besides, it is the one place we can go where nothing is asked of us. Rather, we give freely as we are receiving freely.
The apostles and early Christians were no different than we are in this respect. Ours has always been a church of imperfect people who hope to become sanctified. The apostles are an example of this. They were very ‘rough around the edges’ and had to continually grow in the ministries to which they were called and freely responded. They made mistakes and they had successes. They also had to learn the concept of community which was ingrained into everything Jesus did while preparing them to minister to the world. They were to be a community of believers united in one heart and mind sharing in a common task together. And it was easier said than done. But no matter what happened, they took to heart what Jesus taught them about being united through their common goal and in their joy in bringing others to Jesus. While often messy, it was done with love for one another and because they loved Jesus.
In the Gospel for this week Jesus tells us that He is the vine and we are the branches. He is the source of our life and all the gifts we have to share, but we are the ones who must bear fruit. The vine sustains the branches, but it is the branches that do the bearing of fruit. Without our connection to one another we would be like a lopsided tree: one branch bearing fruit while the rest of the tree languishes. If that were to happen, the tree would not be very healthy and the one branch bearing fruit would be so stressed it might not survive. Therefore, as disciples we need to help each branch bear fruit. In other words, we need one another in order to grow and in order to build the Kingdom. Our attempts at working and worshipping as a community are no less messy than those of the early church, but if we try to work together, exercising the gifts of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, we can help one another to sanctity and also work at healing that which is broken in the world.
We have a lot of work to do. This is clear in our daily lives and in what we hear and see in the world around us. There are great rends in the fabric which interconnects all the children of God throughout the global community. There are wounds which we inflict upon one another because of our imperfection, selfishness, and sinfulness. We must not forget that once we leave the church building, we must carry what we have been given out into this world. That is, we must take the mercy, compassion, and love given to us by God though we are sinners, and live by these gifts, sharing them with others, who like ourselves, are quite imperfect. If we do not take what we share within the church outward into the world, we will lose the sense of larger community, therefore losing our sense of ministry to those who are in need. It is a huge challenge: our world can be as hostile to the message now as it was to the apostles. Like them, we may have to suffer a bit to make the message known. And even if the outside forces seem to be gaining momentum and overpowering us, we need to cling to Jesus and His presence in the wider believing community, asking for help in sharing love with the detractors and those who divide rather than unite. Yes, there is much work to do, but there is always hope. We know that the victory of Jesus is ours, even if we have to wait until the next life to fully enjoy it. The way to that everlasting life comes to us through the gifts contained in the gathered community where Jesus is always present.
May we remember that our faith family, the Body of Christ, is a great gift because they are the ones closest to us through whom the Lord acts and speaks! May we lift up those who are down, share faith with those who are questioning, unite in building the Kingdom together, and participate in worship with gladness and joy! May we be grateful for the gift of our brothers and sisters in Christ, or faith community! May we persevere in the work of building the Kingdom with one another! And may we be steadfast in our faith in Jesus, that the community will one day be fulfilled and perfected with Him in Heaven forever! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*What I mean by 'milestone celebrations' are events which are steps taken in the one's life which are sacramental or service oriented. The events for which we were present were a first Holy Communion and the recognition of a commissioning for a friend who is becoming a deacon.
All the photos are mine. The first was taken in Nova Scotia, Canada. The second is of some stained glass in a church in LeMans, France.
Following the two photos is a painting, Appearance While the Apostles Are At Table by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260-1318) You can find more on this painting at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_Appearance_While_the_Apostles_are_at_Table_-_WGA06738.jpg
Next is another of my photos. This plant with the castle in the background was taken in Sicily just outside Noto.
Last is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Christ Emmanuel Flowering Cross. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/35-christ-emmanuel-flowering-cross
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Heart Speaks to Heart