I awoke with a chant running through my mind on this chilly autumn morning, the Saturday before Christ the King. Prayer is embodied for me, so rehearsing the cadence of the liturgy plants those words in my soul so they can sprout. Waking today singing a chant that I had rehearsed yesterday was a visceral sign of germination, emergence taking shape even as my body was at rest.
Tomorrow at Sunday Eucharist, we will celebrate the Reign of Christ as we transition from the many weeks of Ordinary Time and into our preparations for Advent. I will be chanting the Eucharist, and blessing the waters of baptism for the first time. These new gifts of prayer and presence in my first year of priesthood are to be cherished and savored.
But this morning, there was Food Pantry and a hot meal being served in the parish hall, and that demanded my attention. I put on my collar thinking about the Reign of Christ. Leading the liturgy and pastoring at feeding ministries are the two times that I assuredly can be found wearing clericals; they are both extensions of the Great Thanksgiving and in my own mind, practically inseparable. I stuffed several bus passes in my pocket, packed up a basket full of winter gloves, and went to the basement where the volunteers at church had cooked two delicious homemade soups with toasted cheese sandwiches. They were trying out a new thing, too: in addition to bags of groceries, a table had been set with donated extras including toiletries, backpacks and other necessities that become quickly unaffordable when one is living on small amounts of cash. I placed my basket of gloves there as well. It’s a trust exercise, this communal sharing, holding the balance between parts of us that wish to ration quantities of donated items and choosing instead to simply put out what we have, in the belief that there will be enough. Today, we chose trust, which at its base is love. It was, I believe, the perfect invocation.
As our lay leader said a prayer on the fly, the doors of the church opened and God came rushing in. I know, it sounds trite. But this, I believe, is actually the case. God is with us, at all times and in all places. Sometimes when we notice the tangible presence of the divine, we get the directionality of the experience wrong. We think, perhaps, that we go to church to meet God. Or, we think of those in need are coming into the church to encounter God in the generosity of people of faith they encounter. Those are very nice things, but they are actually about the reign of human-kindness. In the Reign of Christ, we are reminded that it is God who is incarnate in the corners and social margins of this world who comes in to pummel us out of our comfort zone. This in-rushing of God on a chilly autumn day reminds us that there is not one corner of this world; not one set of eyes; not one pair of calloused hands; not one hungry body or soul where God fails to be immanently present. And God is aching for us to open the doors of our hearts; to enter in and bring us all into relationship.
I had just finished praying with a few people when Terrence came over to ask me if I would step aside with him, as he wanted to ask me something privately. I hadn’t met Terrence before; he was thin and wiry and wore two thin coats which he explained equated to one really warm one. I stepped to one side with him as he moved closer to a bulletin board where there was a picture of the nave of the parish, taken from the street-facing doors where the baptismal font was front and center and the camera angle pointed toward the altar. “Now, I’ve never been here before so I’m not judging” he began, “But, what I want to know is this: what would happen if I came back tomorrow into THAT space, instead of this space?”
It was a fair question, and I acknowledged his earnest need to know. He continued, “See, it’s sometimes when I come into churches that look like this, all beautiful inside, that I wonder what will happen when I’m there, just as I am. I think about that a lot. See, I pray every week about where God wants me to go to worship. Sometimes, I have been to a church during the week and get a hot meal and everyone is kind because they have their roles planned: they are the ones helping, and I’m the one being helped. But then I can step into the same place on a Sunday, and see the same people, but it’s like I become invisible. Or worse, people think I am coming in to meet Jesus for the first time, as if I don’t already have that relationship. My whole life depends on that relationship; it’s the most important thing in my life that gets me through. Sometimes I sit there and I think to myself: I wonder what Jesus looked like to the people in the temple. Would people know Jesus if He showed up? Or would they ignore him, too?”
I couldn’t argue with Terrence. His words were prophetic, and important. I realize that I’ve even felt a hint of that myself in churches I’ve been in, when I’m just a visitor and everyone is so busy talking with everyone they already know that there isn’t a real space for others to experience welcome. And even saying that, I don’t know the added pain of experiencing that as a person living in this world without adequate shelter, food, or access to personal hygiene. And, I really don’t know what its like to combine all that with being a person of color in a sea of mostly white faces. But Terrence did. And, I believe, so does Christ who draws us together.
Terrence’s words were a gift on this Eve of the Reign of Christ: The face Christ reflected in Terrence, looking me in the eyes with one plea: will you love me as I yearn to love you?
I did promise Terrence one thing: if I saw him walk through our doors on Sunday, or any day for that matter, I would recognize Christ in him, just as I did at that moment. He offered me a hug, because that is what God does.
Just then, another tall and reserved man entered the room. He was rugged and handsome, dark-skinned, tattooed, and walked with a deliberate pace as he took in his surroundings with an air of caution and determination. Suddenly, an older, white woman…a regular to this feeding program…who walked stooped over with a cane and carried the weight of the world on shoulders looked over at him and her face lit up. The two said, virtually at the same time, “My Angel!” I watched as she stood and hugged him, her head barely reaching his chest and his reserve melting into deep compassion.
This unlikely pairing of people went on to tell me their story: two strangers, who found themselves together on two different occasions in life. In each circumstance, the other would be dead if not for the other. Each time, actions were taken that were selfless. Each time, they unquestionably saw God in each other. And today, months having passed, they recognized Christ in each other again. I put a hand on each of them and blessed this space of God’s presence. Suddenly, they both folded me in their embrace. And there we stood, a misfit yet magnificent icon of the Holy Trinity in which every theological discussion of the ontological and economic manifestation of divine mystery was revealed in a space that needed no words.
The rush of divine presence remained with us, lingering over bowls of soup and the sorting through of needed hygiene products; the exchange of prayers and blessings along with the safety of a space where stories could be shared and held as sacred. The revelation wasn’t just the presence of Christ in our midst; that was an unequivocal fact. The revelation was the powerful, interrupting Reign of Christ breaking through our social structures, manifesting in the shared space and divine dance of interrelationship which defied all the lines of “us” and “them” which separate us in the world.
This is the Reign of Christ that I will carry with me into liturgy tomorrow; the embodied prayer will be in the words I chant over the waters of baptism; in the gifts we present as they are transformed along with each one of us to the Body of Christ who does reign in our lives and communities. The Reign of Christ is now, and is yet to come. And when it comes rushing in the doors where we worship and serve, then may we be waiting with open arms to be caught up in the embrace of incarnate love.
Come, Lord Jesus.