Bread and Wine: Fruits of the Earth and Work of Human Hands
Homily for Chrism Mass 2014 at St. Paul Cathedral Yakima
Isaiah 61:1-3a, 6a 8b-9; Revelation 1:5-8; Luke 4:16-21
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson, Bishop of Yakima
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” How might we – as priests – dispose ourselves to these words that Jesus cites from the prophet Isaiah in our Gospel from St. Luke? How do we preach the “Good News” to the poor in our midst?
We ought to start by acknowledging that there are many forms of poverty. Certainly, this begins with physical poverty. When we can’t pay the rent or the power bill, or when we can’t provide for our children the basics, let alone keep up with what their friends may have, we face a poverty that cuts to the very marrow of our self-esteem. Physical poverty quickly leads to spiritual poverty. Indeed, the consequences of physical poverty should quickly sensitize us to the many forms of spiritual poverty that plague our daily lives.
Illness is a kind of poverty that strikes everyone: those who are economically well off as well as those who are not. The sick among us often become alone and isolated. Cut off from the regular flow of daily life, the sick can experience weakened bonds of community and friendship.
Affection is another form of poverty. We are all aware that many marriage fail. Those failures often stem from the incapacity to deal with the waxing and waning of affection. Yet love is more than an emotion. It’s a decision. It’s a decision that bears fruit in the gift of children. When adults lose sight of this eternal truth, children can be forced into a poverty of affection by the very adults meant to love them, protect them, and give them a sense of their roots and their life destination.
Age can be another form of poverty. We feel our physical capacities diminish. We notice we cannot do the things we once did. Things that we once did with great ease cause physical and mental fatigue. This loss can be magnified in a culture that glorifies youth but ignores old age. Thus it becomes very easy to feel useless and without value in our very personhood.
Failure can be another form of poverty. This failure can strike at any age. For the young it can be the discovery that we lack the capacity to advance to college. For the middle age it’s the poverty of our career options closing down. For the old, it can be the looking back across a number of lifetime failures.
Perhaps the hardest poverty is the poverty of our error and our sin. It can be excruciatingly hard to endure our own guilt – to live with the thought that we have been deliberately wicked and engaged in the wrong things of life. As priests, how do we bear the guilt for terrible error and sin of the clergy sex abuse scandal? How do take responsibility for things deep in the past that are not of our own making or our own doing? How do we walk with the weaker brothers? Do we challenge or do we cover up? Are we close enough to our brother priests to even know?
Our capacity to face the poverty of error and sin in our own lives can open us to the terrible struggles lived by our people. How do we help parents face their families after they’ve been convicted of a drug crime? How do we help a dad face his children after he’s done time in prison? How do we walk with the thousands and thousands of undocumented who fill our parishes all across Central Washington?
Perhaps this is why Pope Francis writes the following his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:
“…I want to say with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.” (EG 200)
This is what our Yakima diocesan seminarians learn when they work picking fruit or packing apples. Indeed, one of our men, working last summer at an apple packing plant, made the point of getting a little ahead on his co-workers in assembling apple crates. This allowed him to snatch a few minutes to talk with his co-workers about their spiritual lives. Although his co-workers were baptized Catholics some did not go to Church and for most everyone in the plant it was the first time they’d ever talked with anyone from the Church.
The last day of work, this seminarian used his own money to buy everyone a Catholic study Bible. They got to choose – Spanish or English. Much to my seminarian’s surprise, everyone wanted a Bible! One of the co-workers who’d been quite critical of the Church in casual conversations surprised our seminarian with his request: “Do you have a Bible for me?” Without missing a beat, our seminarian responded: “Spanish or English?”
It seems to me that if we are to elevate the bread and the wine as “gifts of the earth and work of human hands,” it might be wise for us to be very cognizant of the actual “work of human hands” that produce these “gifts of the earth.”
It’s also why I don’t ordain a man to the priesthood here in the Diocese of Yakima without the orchard or warehouse experience. If they can elevate a crate of apples over their heads, then they might be worthy to elevate the bread and the wine at a Sunday Eucharist for the vast majority of our people who earn their way by such demanding labor.
“Spanish or English?” We might want to ask ourselves if we are ready to give that response to those with whom we share daily life – those who might be looking for a sign from us that we’re ready to lead them to Jesus Christ.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”
My thanks to all of you – my brother priests – for the many ways you aim your message to the spiritual poverty of our people. And my thanks to all of you gathered this night that open your hearts to Christ through the sacraments as well as the pastoral care of the Church. Peace be with you!