the politics of the chalice
Rembrandt van Rijn, TheStorm on the Sea of Galilee. 1633.
The cold rain of October has moved in today. In the past week thousands have died in Israel and Palestine. The war rages on in Ukraine. Voices justifying the violence are emerging from all directions and from points both “left” and “right” on the political spectrum. We are afraid, whatever our ethnicity or religion, wherever we live in the world. Even if we are not the target today, we will be tomorrow or the next day. We are also angry. More than anything, though, we are heartbroken.
I have something I need to do on this rainy morning, however. I’ve received an e-mail from a woman in the city who needs help. Just like last month, she is struggling to pay her grocery bill. It is not that she is homeless or doesn’t have work. It’s just that she has kids, and as housing costs sky rocket and grocery chains collude to raise their prices for record profits, having work doesn’t mean you can easily put food on the table anymore. That is how it is in my city, and in nearly every city across North America and beyond. People are living in tents in the park. People are turning to drugs. Soup kitchens are running out of food. Shelters have no beds. Churches are closing left and right and the charity they once provided is not replaced by activists and angry commentators. There are more resources available where I live than we could possibly need in a thousand years, but many of us are barred from access to something as simple as a square meal as we watch our leaders double down on bad policies and greed, happily allowing the rest of us to pay the costs.
I have some money, though, and the parish has gift cards that we can give to people who need our help buying groceries and medicines and the other things human beings require. I meet the woman at the church early in the afternoon, and she apologizes for asking for help a second time. It doesn’t matter, of course. What else should she do? Her daughter looks in the other direction while they accept the gift cards from the parish and a little bit of extra money from my pocket. “It’s so hard out there right now,” I say. There are almost tears in the woman’s eyes. “This is what we’re here for.” And off she goes to buy something to feed her family.
At least her family will eat today. My mind turns back to the rest of the world—to Israel and Palestine as they descend into violence, then back to the tent cities just down the block in one of the richest countries in the world, then to Ukraine and Russia, and to all the places that I am not even aware of where suffering is rampant. What will I tell my Saviour that I have done for all these things? I will tell him I have done nothing. I will tell him that on that rainy day I gave a woman some money for groceries, and that is all. I will tell him that afterward I hung my head knowing that I could have spent the rest of my day feeding more people, could have sent money abroad, could have sold everything I own to try and make a bigger difference, and yet that no matter how much I might do the world would be precisely the same by tomorrow. I am powerless; and I am not going nearly as far as I could. It is both. I can only ask to be forgiven.
I lock up the church door and turn back around. Across the sanctuary sits the altar, ready for divine liturgy tomorrow morning. Tomorrow I will step forward to the chalice, my heart weeping, and I will receive the gifts of the Lord’s Body and Blood. I will take them into myself even though I could not possibly deserve them. I will accept His infinite gift to me even though I have only given the smallest of gifts to my fellow human beings. I will ask His mercy.
And this will be my response to the politics and suffering around me—this will be our political contribution as a Church to the world. The doors will be open on Sunday morning. Those who wish to enter may enter, though most will simply pass us by in their cars or on the bus on the way to somewhere else. If someone else needs help with their groceries there will be more gift cards to give them. There will be coffee and refreshments for those of any walk who might join us. I will help to make the coffee and bake some treats. I will bake the bread for the Eucharist. I will eat these things with everyone else. That is what I will do—that is what we together will do—in a world coming apart at the seams as it always has and always will.
It is effectively nothing at all. It will not turn the tide on the wars or the poverty. It will not make the world a just place where all is fair, where oppression and terrorism have vanished, where every person has dignity and housing and food to eat. We will offer the chalice tomorrow morning, and the world will be almost identical in the afternoon.
Almost identical. Not quite identical.
It is a tiny drop of love and strength in the ocean of the human fallenness. It is a tiny drop of blood that seems to disappear as soon as it mixes with the water. Yet it is His blood, and the ocean will never be the same once it is shed. In the end, just one drop of that blood conquers the ocean itself. We cannot see it this side of the end of all things—we cannot see how total the transformation really is. It is easy to miss because we never fully apprehend the power of the Creator.
I have done nothing today in light of the world’s suffering, nothing to speak of anyway.
I have accomplished nothing more than providing a few cans of beans, some sausage, a loaf of bread, to just one family in a city of half a million
Yet in the Chalice, where the body and the blood of the True King are found, there is the fullness of the redemption that this troubled world cries out for.
He has accomplished all, in spite of how little I have done.
He has offered the entire world the true bread and the true wine for our sustenance: Himself.
We accept these gifts with our broken hearts, and spread our broken hearts abroad to the world, just as He commanded us to do. We cast our one vote in the election, we give our little bit of charity, we beg and pray for peace and for sanity. These things make no noticeable difference. And precisely because that will always be so, we receive with broken hearts—the only thing left that we can do. Blood and repentance. It is nothing. It is everything.