Servant of God Walter Ciszek, a Polish-American Jesuit priest who served as a missionary in the Soviet Union during the war-torn and tumultuous years of the mid 20th century, writes in his memoir He Leadeth Me (New York: Doubleday, 1973) of presiding at Eucharist as a prisoner in the Siberian gulag. Facing constant threat of reprisal for celebrating the sacraments alone and in community, the faithful in the camps waited until the noon break to gather, observing the Eucharistic fast throughout the night and morning. Ciszek recalls:
In small groups the prisoners would shuffle into the assigned place, and there the priest would say Mass in his working clothes, unwashed, disheveled, bundled up against the cold. We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer. Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in the place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul.
Ciszek, who returned to the United States following his captivity, noted “no other inspiration could have deepened my faith more, could have given me spiritual courage in greater abundance, than the privilege of saying Mass for these poorest and most deprived members of Christ the Good Shepherd’s flock.”
Perhaps you’ve heard this story before, or others like it, powerful stories of sacraments celebrated as resistance in the face of oppression and evil. Unfortunately, the reality of religious persecution experienced by Christians throughout the centuries in places like the former Soviet Union and other communist countries, and other places, has been well-documented. These stories remind us of the humbling power of the Eucharist, which we gather to celebrate today.
And as we gather, we return to the table, a table which is set for us each week. There, of course, is much to be gained from the access we have as the people of God to such a celebration, week after week, in the comfort of this sanctuary. Our faith is deepened—and our lives enriched—through the experience of the rhythms of our liturgical life. Indeed, this table, this altar, and the community which gathers around it is the very center of our faith.
Yet we know it is possible to get too comfortable. Repetition leads to familiarity.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. For generations, people of faith have at times lost sight of the importance of the nourishment found in the breaking of the bread. Moses had to remind the Jewish people, who had become comfortable in the years following the journey out of Egypt of the food provided them in times of great spiritual hunger. And those crowds that gathered around Jesus had become so comfortable in their lives of faith that he had to spell out for them in graphic terms exactly what he meant by living bread and the promise of salvation.
Today, the act of gathering around this altar is also an act of resistance, no matter how familiar the celebration of the Eucharist may be to us. It is a bold act in the midst of—and on behalf of—a community of believers. We approach the table from all sorts of different places and perspectives becoming one in the sharing of Christ’s body and blood. We walk together toward the promise of new life, setting aside the darkness of difference and resentments. In a divided and polarized world, our act of unity bears witness. And having been fed, the real presence of Christ remains in us as we go out into that same world, having been changed and thus called to bring about change.
The church sets aside this Sunday to remind us of how truly uncommon this meal we are about to share is. It is an act of resistance today just as much as it was for Walter Cizsek and his companions and all those others who have gone before us. In our gathering, in our sharing, we respond to the violence and oppression in the world with the new life Christ offers.
Originally published in “Loose-leaf Lectionary for Mass,” Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Copyright 2020. For subscription information, visit: https://litpress.org/loose-leaf-lectionary/index