There is a story told about a four-year-old Jewish boy, Mortakai, who refused to go to school to study Hebrew and the Torah. Every time his parents attempted to send him to school, young Mortakai would sneak off to the swings and play by himself. His parents tried every form of persuasion and threat, but nothing worked. The child failed to understand or acquiesce, silently and stubbornly refusing to stay in school. Eventually they even took him to see a psychiatrist. That too proved futile. He continued to sneak away from school at every opportunity. Finally, in desperation, they took him to the rabbi, an old and spiritually astute man. The rabbi listened while the parents explained the problem. Without a word, he picked up the child and held him closely to his heart for several moments. Then, still without a word, he put the child down. From then on, Mortakai stayed in school and there was no further problem. What do we do when our words are inadequate? What do we do when we feel tense and tired? What do we do when we feel inadequate to cope with the complexities and ambiguities of our lives and loves? What do we do when we need power from beyond ourselves to bring about a love, a wholeness, and a peace, which we cannot give ourselves? We generally do all kinds of things, not the least of which is that we often grow depressed, frustrated and despairing.
But there is something we can do. We can touch the hem of Christ’s garment. We can celebrate the Eucharist. In it, we are inexplicably given peace and strength because in that ritual God holds us to his heart. The scriptural story of the woman who touched the hem of Christ’s garment provides a paradigm for this. That woman, we are told, had been suffering from internal bleeding for many years. During those years she had tried everything within her power to come to healing. Nothing had worked. All her efforts had served only to worsen her state and leave her fatigued and discouraged. Finally, with her own resources spent and all that was humanly in view exhausted, she decided that she would sneak up and touch Christ. As she touched him she felt a power flow into her. She became whole. Something from beyond herself, something from beyond ordinary possibility, now flowed where formerly she haemorrhaged. Her explicit confrontation with Christ would come later. The Eucharist is meant to function like that. In it, we touch the hem of Christ’s garment and are held to his heart. What happens there is something beyond words and understanding, though not beyond love. Like love, the Eucharist does not need to be understood or explained, it needs only to be touched. In the Eucharist, as in love, the main thing is that we be held.
Perhaps the most useful image of how the Eucharist functions is the image of a mother holding a frightened, tired, and tense child. In the Eucharist, God functions as a mother. God picks us up; frightened, tired, helpless, complaining, discouraged, and protesting children and holds us to her heart until the tension subsides and peace and strength flow into us. A tense and tired child held to its mother’s breast eventually becomes calm and returns to the floor full again of the mother’s strength. Through an embrace the mother can impart to a child a peace and a strength that cannot be transmitted through words. This is also true for the embrace of friends and lovers. There is in an embrace something beyond what can be explained biologically or psychologically. Power is transmitted through love that goes beyond rational understanding. That is why when after Jesus had spent all his words he left us the Eucharist. That is also why when after we have spent all our words we should celebrate the Eucharist. When our own words, decisions, and actions are inadequate to relieve the aching in our hearts, we need the embrace of the mother, God. This happens in the Eucharist. It is a timeless ritual, an embrace. Like love, it is something that we can never fully understand or explain. But we need not understand it. We can let the ritual do its work. Ultimately we go to the Eucharist to let ourselves be held.
We live constantly at the limits of our own capacities, where our words fail us, where our resources are not enough, and where we feel acutely our dullness, our failure, our moral impotence, our bitterness, and our distance from God and others. We are constantly helpless, helpless to heal and helpless to celebrate. In that fatigue and tension we need to abandon ourselves to the embrace, the Eucharist.
It is not important that we understand all that transpires there, nor even that we go to the Eucharist fully alert and enthusiastic – I doubt the apostles were that at the Last Supper. It is only important that we enter the ritual. In it, God holds us to her heart.