Sara Miles was bringing her friend Millie back from a round of radiation. Before they could reach the front door, Millie began retching.
The treatments were a last-ditch effort to beat back the disease. Millie’s breast cancer had spread to her bones. Her pain was unrelenting. Weighing less than a hundred pounds, Millie’s body was simply giving out.
Once she had settled Millie into bed, Sara went into the kitchen and made her some toast. It was time for Millie’s medication, and she needed a little something in her stomach to keep it down.
Millie’s suffering was breaking Sara’s heart. She stood at the kitchen counter praying and tearing the toast into pieces small enough for Millie to swallow. Praying and tearing. Praying and tearing.
She came to realize that she was doing more than tearing toast. She was taking the bread and blessing it. Breaking the bread and giving it. And she was giving herself—blessed and broken—to her friend.
There was something sacramental going on here. Communion was happening. (Sara Miles. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, p. 271.)
Sara serves at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. At the Eucharist, they use loaves of bread. Not the individual communion wafers to which many have grown accustomed. To distribute communion, ministers must literally break the bread and tear it into pieces.
Tearing toast in the kitchen evoked for her the liturgical action of breaking the bread during the Holy Eucharist. Well, actually, I’ve got that sort of backwards.
In the Eucharist God has taught her to see ordinary life for what it really is. God’s love flows through our hands and feet in even the humblest acts of service. Changing a diaper. Exchanging a smile. Feeding the hungry. Holding a lonely hand. Tearing a piece of toast.
Think about what a sacrament is. The brief catechism at the back of The Book of Common Prayer says that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. To put that another way, a sacrament is God doing something in and through common physical things.
You might be thinking about the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist. Or maybe the waters of Baptism have come to your mind. These are rites of the Church. And the chances are pretty good that you confine the sacraments to something that happens in worship services.
Sara Miles is trying to get us to go deeper in our understanding of the sacraments. And she echoes the thoughts of Catholic theologians like Edward Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner.
Here’s what they tell us. Jesus is the primary sacrament. God’s redeeming love flows through the Body of Christ. Since the resurrection and the ascension, the Church is that Body. Let me be clear about this.
The Church is neither the hierarchy nor our buildings. The Church is all of us. You and me and all of God’s children. We are the Body of Christ. We are the flesh through which the healing, reconciling, restoring love of God flows.
In the Church’s sacramental rites, we see with clarity what God can be doing through us in our homes and neighborhoods, in our offices and schools. We can be the outward and visible signs through which God imparts healing, reconciling love.
Jesus was getting at something like this when he said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14b) Understandably, some will hear this to mean that in Jesus God will slake their own personal spiritual thirst. And this is true. Only, it is incomplete.
God’s love wells up within us and overflows beyond us. We are not mere vessels whose function is to hold God’s grace. On the contrary, our bodies are channels through which God’s grace can flow to the world.
The work of the Spirit flows from body to body. For instance, Sara Miles directs the Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s. Each week they distribute food to scores upon scores of people from the altar. She recognizes that the Eucharist shared on Sunday continues during the week as they feed the hungry.
In the Incarnation, God has drawn us all into a sacramental life. Our worship centers on the sacraments. And those sacraments pattern for us the purpose that animates our everyday existence. Jesus sends us from his Holy Table on Sunday to carry Communion into the world.
We feed the elderly with Meals on Wheels, nourish children with free breakfast at school, and send students home with backpacks filled with food for weekends and holidays. And when we do, communion happens.
At the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and then gave it. “This is my body,” he said. And Jesus now says, “You are my Body.”
In Jesus, God takes us and blesses us and breaks us. Jesus breaks open our hearts with compassion for our neighbor. Broken open by love, we are given to the world for the healing of the world.