Yes, you can catch the flu from the Precious Blood (thank God)

It’s flu season, and it’s a tradition: Some Catholic always claims we can’t get sick from drinking the Precious Blood at Mass. Why? Because . . . well, it’s Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make you sick.

And anyway, it’s alcohol, so that should kill any germs. And anyway! I mean really! How can we profess our trust that Christ is life, and then immediately turn fearfully away from receiving the gift of His blood?

At our parish, they stopped offering the cup during flu season, so the choice is out of our hands. There appears to be a fairly low risk of actually contracting an illness from sharing the chalice, because metal doesn’t harbor microbes well, and because the rim is wiped regularly. Still, there is some risk. I decided a few years ago that if I have good reason to worry about my family’s health, then we have good reason to reverently bypass drinking from the cup.

We know that what is inside that cup is actually the Precious Blood. Its substance is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself. But it still has all the accidents, or physical properties, of wine: grapes, ethanol, etc. It sloshes like wine; it’s purple like wine; it has a little wobbly reflection of the fluorescent overhead lights in it, like wine; if you drink enough of it, you’ll get drunk, just like with wine.

And if it has other people’s germs in it, you might get sick from putting it in your mouth. Just like wine.

Harumph, you may say. I’m no fool. We most certainly can get sick from drinking from the cup – but that sickness is a small price to pay in exchange for receiving the Eucharist. After all, if Jesus walked through our front door during flu season, would we chase Him off because we might catch something?

To this, I respond: Let’s not invent sins that the Catechism never imagined. There are many reasons that the Eucharist (unlike the unprecedented house call described above) is offered so frequently, and that it’s offered under both kinds. One reason is that, if you need to be prudent and forego this sacrament completely one day (by staying home sick), or forego one kind (by only receiving the more hygienic Host), then the Church, as always, is accommodating. This is for your own benefit, and also for the benefit all the other parishioners. You can come again another day, and our patient Lord – who made the world, germs and all – will be there, happy to see that you’re feeling better now.

We are all called upon to make sacrifices, including mortifying the flesh; but deliberately exposing oneself to potentially fatal disease, and possibly spreading it . . . you know, maybe just put a pea in your shoe, instead, or say the rosary on your knees. Taking unnecessary risks with your health doesn’t sound like piety to me. It sounds like pride.

But what about the original argument, that we can acknowledge it’s possible to transmit germs through the Eucharist, but it’s more spiritually elevated to dwell only on the pure, holy, and edifying aspects of the Eucharist?

That would make Christ something of a fool. Why would He bother to become incarnate, if He expected us to pretend He wasn’t? Why would he bother taking on a human flesh, if He wanted us to flutter our eyes politely and pretend His body isn’t a real body?

Being a Catholic is all about the body. It’s all about manning up and admitting that this hunk of meat we drag around – whether it’s athletic, soft, withered, paunchy, or bouncing brand-new – is what we have to work with. Jesus, like us, saw with His googly eyeballs, all stuffed with jellylike vitreous humor; He moved His limbs with the aid of diarthrotic joints and synovial fluid. He had boogers. Remember? “Like us in all things but sin.”

I have always felt uneasy around the caroling of certain overly lovely traditions: that the baby Jesus, at His birth, filtered through Mary’s hymen like a sunbeam through a window pane; that “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Why shouldn’t He cry? I cry.

When I remember that He is really, truly a human, I remember that he really truly understands the burden of being a human. He doesn’t whisk our troubles away, or dazzle us with His divinity to distract us from the real world.  He sees our burden. He stands alongside us and helps us lift it, because He knows that it is real. Because He is real.

Isn’t our faith strange? It would be weird enough if we taught that the Blood of our Savior gave us mystical immunity from the flu. But the truth is even weirder.

What’s weirder still is that what looks all sloshy and purple, and what smells and tastes like something on sale at the Quik-E-Mart, is what will save our souls.

Weirdest of all: Christ is our Brother. His body had germs. His transubstantiated Blood has germs in it. If we don’t understand this, we’re in danger of making the Eucharist into something a little bit silly – something removed from us, something utterly beyond our grasp, something nebulous and magical, a trick. But the Eucharist is not magic, it’s better: It’s a miracle.  Miracles take nature and form it into something new, like clay becoming a cup. The Eucharist is not removed from the world; it transforms the world.

Well, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe God really does protect those trusting parishioners who hope in His mercy, and maybe He rewards their trust with good health. After all, saints have survived for years with no physical nourishment other than the Eucharist. St. Claire once frightened off an attacking horde of Saracens by holding up a consecrated Host.

But I don’t think I’m missing anything by thinking about germs. Thinking of God’s body, of His brotherhood with us, and thinking most of all of His suffering, and of His sympathy, helps me remember something it’s easy to forget, when I’m worn out, disgusted, flattened, fed up, and exhausted by this world and its disease: He is here with us, right now. He is one of us.

***
Image: “The Increduity of St. Thomas” by Hendrick ter Brugghen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A version of this essay originally ran at Inside Catholic in 2009.

Oh, that final verse!

Drive down the road on December 26 and beyond, and you’ll see a bunch of denuded Christmas trees kicked to the curb because their owners think Christmas is now over. They may have sung Christmas songs at their house, but they haven’t listened to the final verse.

And that final verse is vital. Take, for instance, one of my favorite Christmas songs: “Would I Were Nigh”:*

This is my favorite kind of Christmas carol: gentle, tender, and spare, with enough details to make the scene human, but also eliciting a sense of wonder.

You can see on the sheet music that the choir director wanted the singers to perform the first verse, to skip verses 3-5 for brevity, and to end with the final verse. And that final verse is there for a reason.

The first five verses express a subjunctive longing to have been present at the actual birth of Our Lord – to see “the oxen lie beside Him” – to watch Joseph keep “a watchful eye for danger” while the baby sleeps — to see the shepherds “lend ragged coats to hide Him.”

But the final verse is even more reflective: “Would I were there . . .” he says, “Yet everywhere, I too can beg His blessing; Then go my way, by night or day, safe through a world distressing.” And that one thought deftly rescues the entire song from any hint of fantasy or sentimentalism: we don’t have to daydream or wish, because no matter who, where, or when we are, the scene is real. The Incarnation of our Lord is present to us. The luminous child lights the way through every era.

I haven’t thrown out our Christmas tree. Our decorations are still up, and we’re still lighting our Advent wreath throughout the Octave of Christmas, singing Christmas songs instead of Advent ones. We’re still feasting, still pressing ourselves to treat each other with extra care and tenderness, because Christmas isn’t over. And yet I woke up in the middle of the night in distress, feeling like I missed the mark this year. Our Christmas was too busy, too secular, too focused on externals and not enough on the Christ Child. Somehow, I hadn’t seen Christmas through to its end.

Well, of course I hadn’t.

Just as with the folks who toss out their trees on December 26th, I make a mistake if I pin all my hopes for peace and joy and love on Christmas day, or really on any single day. If I do make this mistake, it’s because I haven’t listened to the song all the way through. I’m leaving off the final verse, and that one is vital.

The final verse, not only in the song but in anything that God is trying to tell us, says: “This story, your story, doesn’t end with death.” If we’re not getting everything we need in this world, if we don’t feel satisfied, if we feel adrift and alone and incomplete, if we feel that we’re always missing the mark, that’s because we haven’t gotten to the end of the song yet. We haven’t yet gotten to the final verse, which rescues all the others from fantasy.

The most accurate “final verse” we can sing is the one the Church teaches us: We wait in joyful hope, and that includes joyful hope for our own salvation through Christ’s efforts, not through our own. Don’t skip that verse.

The light of the Christ child is not meant be contained in a single day. It stretches from that night in Bethlehem to our present day, and it also stretches out ahead of us, into the future, as we wait for Him to come again and set all things right, in our own lives and in the “world distressing.”

So if this season feels all too distressing to you – if you are alone, or if you are suffering, or if bad memories seep through and make this time of year awful, or even if we ourselves are the cause of that distress — remember that we’re all still in that subjunctive phase.

There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel incomplete. We are incomplete. The final verse is yet to come. Oh, that final verse! It’s worth waiting for.

***

*from An Irish Carol Book (McLaughlin and Reilly) compiled by Fr. John Fennelly, arranged by Fr. Fennelley and  J. Gerald Phillips, my sister’s choir director in college. I can’t find a recording anywhere, so here is the music (thanks to Sam Schmitt for hunting down and sharing the sheet music!)

A version of this essay first appeared in the National Catholic Register in 2015.

On fly ashes and flexibility

The Church doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

***
Image:  By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A day without that one woman

would have looked like this:

and this:

and this:

and this:

 

and this:

and this:

And so on.

Because without her, we wouldn’t have Him.

No jokes, no anti-feminist message here. Just gratitude that that one particular women showed up on that one particular day. Mary, give me the strength to show up today. Jesus, do with my presence what you will.

Undeserving, unremarkable, unreliable, and beloved

Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.

Why? Why would He do this?

Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.

Read the rest of my latest post at The Catholic Weekly.

Image: detail of photo by Andreĭ Osipovich Karelin, Public Domain