The Christ Life

Vowing both our commitment and our sinful failure
“Allegory of the Eucharist,” German 15th century (National Gallery of Art, CC0/Wikimedia Commons)

Years ago, when we were living in Rochester, New York, my wife and I often attended services at a Catholic church that was, if one can say it, “synodally alive.” A dwindling inner-city parish, Corpus Christi, had been transformed by its pastor, Fr. Jim Callan, into a vibrant community. Synodal means “traveling together,” and Corpus Christi had more sorts of folks celebrating Mass together than we had ever experienced before or since: rich and poor, Black and white, gay and straight, even residents from a nearby mental hospital who sometimes seemed to speak in tongues. We talk about “celebrating” Mass, but at Corpus Christi it was a real celebration. There were lively Gospel hymns, and at the kiss of peace the congregation dissolved into a surging crowd of hugs and pats, peace signs and, where appropriate, genuine kisses. At Communion, Fr. Callan would announce: “Anyone who takes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is welcome to come forward to receive communion.” That open Communion announcement was, it seems to me, at the heart of synodality.

What does it mean to “take Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?” Start with “take.” This is a strong “take,” as in the marriage vow, “I take you as my lawful wedded wife.” To “take” Jesus as Lord and Savior is to seal one’s life in a vow. Committing to Jesus as Lord and Savior commits one to living a Christ life. No one has expressed what it means to live a Christ life better than Dostoevsky’s Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. There Alyosha speaks his Christ commitment: “I am responsible for everyone and everything and I more than anyone else.” This passage has also been translated as: “I am guilty for everyone and everything and I more than anyone else.”

If the first Mass at the Last Supper welcomed a mix of allegiance and desertion, the here-and-now Church cannot do otherwise.

Either of those vows is humanly impossible. Only God can be responsible for everyone and everything. Only God can suffer for my sin and save me. Nevertheless, to take Christ as Lord and Savior is to take on Christ’s task—to be responsible for the other, for every other. “I more than any other”? Yes, I am always “the chosen one.” I can never say, “Well, it is someone else’s responsibility.” I cannot accomplish the work of Christ, but I also cannot pass his burden on to another. To be his disciple is to work for the salvation of all, the whole ragged assembly that celebrated Mass at Corpus Christi.

It is true that in the enthusiasm of a truly celebratory Mass one may find oneself saying “I take Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” without fully realizing the depth of the vow. But then, how many who speak the vows of marriage realize the depths of a commitment “until death do us part?” A vow seals us beyond a promise. Traditionally a vow seals an action beyond time and change—in other words, in God. The Christ vow states both our commitment and our sinful failure, challenging us at the core of our lives. We may be puzzled or offended by how another person lives the Christ vow; we may question and critique that other life as the other will question us. The many unique ways of living the Christ life require us to exercise what Rowan Williams has called “skills of recognition.” Unhappily, Christians have often been better at the skill of rejection

I do not hold out Corpus Christi’s exuberant liturgy as the pattern for your ordinary Sunday service. (And I should add that the long history of Corpus Christi is complex and in many ways unhappy. My interest is solely in the special experience of services when all was going well.) Where we now live in New England, a stately pace is more in order. If, however, one could imagine Catholics throughout the world celebrating together at a single simultaneous Mass, I imagine it would be much like the one at Corpus Christi: rich and poor, Black and white, racially diverse, and ethically contentious. We know that in such a Mass there would be kneeling and embracing, ordinary and exotic dress, silent prayer, chant and drums and dance. Around the altar there would be a sprinkling of saints within the crowd of sinners. They would all be present in the grace of holiness and recognition of sinful failure because they all take Jesus Christ as Lord.

At the first Eucharist, the Last Supper, Jesus breaks bread with his loyal twelve. He knows that in the crisis at hand all will fail him—sleep when he asks them to attend, deny allegiance, or betray him to authority. If the first Mass welcomed such a mix of allegiance and desertion, the here-and-now Church cannot do otherwise.

Published in the January 2022 issue: 

George Dennis O’Brien is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of Finding the Voice of the Church (Notre Dame Press).

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