The broken body

by Chris Gehrz

Twice this past winter I went to the front of a church and felt a thumb gently inscribe the sign of the cross on my forehead. Twice I heard words of blessing murmured over me. Twice I returned to my pew with eyes moistening with tears.

But only one of those experiences came on Ash Wednesday, and Pastor Kay’s reminder that “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” weighed even less heavily than the ashes I can never help but itch. Instead, I returned to the world bearing the easy yoke and light burden (Matt. 11:30) that comes when one accepts the second part of the Ash Wednesday charge: “Repent, and believe the Gospel.”

The other happened on a Sunday morning in Munich, where a cold January haze kept the sun from shining as brightly as it seems like it should in Epiphany. Nevertheless, I was excited to worship for the first time at the city’s cathedral, the Frauenkirche. I was even feeling pretty proud with myself for keeping up with the liturgical German in my missal and catching at least a portion of the sermon (how the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana prefigures the changing of wine into blood in Eucharist, I think). But, of course, as a non-Catholic, I was not invited to receive the elements. Instead, as I’ve done at Masses before and will do at Masses to come, I came forward with arms crossed over my chest, hoping that German priests recognized the same sign used in English-speaking parishes. Normally, this exclusion from the table doesn’t bother me overly. But as the priest spoke gentle words of blessing and his thumb brushed down and across my forehead, even his kind tone couldn’t shift my focus from the adjective in “separated brethren” to the noun.

It was the last leg of a travel course on the history of the First World War, and we had taken our students to Bavaria’s capital to trace the line leading from that pointless conflict through the rise of National Socialism (born in Munich) and into the Holocaust (we spent the last morning of our trip visiting the neighboring suburb of Dachau). So perhaps I simply couldn’t bear any further reminder of humanity’s ability to divide, categorize, and break itself.

But more, it struck me that the slightest fracture within the Eucharist is all the more painful because “among its many mysteries,” I wrote in my last column, that sacrament “helps knit together the broken body of Christ into a communion.”

The breaking apart of this Body “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature,” wrote the authors of Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. Almost five decades later, it’s sometimes hard to trust the words that continued its introduction: “But the Lord of Ages wisely and patiently follows out the plan of grace on our behalf, sinners that we are….rousing divided Christians to remorse over their divisions and to a longing for unity.”

But the Cross toward which we walked in Lent can bear the sins of schism. And the Resurrection that we celebrated at Easter promises the “better days for the church” that sustained the original Pietist hope. This Pentecost, unlike the first, will not find the followers of Christ “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1), but as the Lord continues to pour forth his Spirit, may it (once more in the words of Vatican II) “[call and gather] together the people of the New Covenant, who are the Church, into a unity of faith, hope and charity….”

Chris Gehrz is a professor at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn., and member of Salem Covenant Church in nearby New Brighton. Read his blog The Pietist Schoolman at pietistschoolman.com.

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