Watching a robin couple choose their unlikely spot to painstakingly build their nest (on top of the water meter) and sit warming those blue eggs was a joyful experience. Not joyful was the morning of discovering the water meter bare, the robins flitting disconsolately back and forth.
The blue shell fragments among the garden flowers seemed at once a great tragedy and an insignificant detail of the cosmos’ normal progress. It’s the result of a natural conflict: Either the robins’ young survive or the raccoons’ young get fed. Nature is “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson).
Are our human conflicts — equally inevitable — equally certain to lead to bloodshed? From playground to international tables, are we doomed to either perpetual violence or finding ways to cope with our violent tendencies so we can coexist?
The question has been urgent since humans first walked the earth. To be human is to dwell within a plague of violence. Where do we find another way?
Christ is the way, the antidote to violence. Here we look not only to his death and resurrection, but to the way he died. He died a violent death, not a gentle one. Receiving violence, he returned peace. He doesn’t just teach peace. He becomes peace, the prince of peace.
How can this be? It seems contradicted by the prevalence of violence, even in churches. No wonder we tend to think of peace as mere coexistence, a kind of harm-reduction model where the fewest are harmed, or at least, the fewest of our side.
But Christ’s peace is a serious, determined thing, which the risen Christ breathes on the disciples — not for a selected few, but for everyone. Peace is “difficult, very difficult — but not impossible” (St. Paul VI).
Peace is not a coping strategy, but a gift. Receiving it in Christ, we become this gift for others, starting with the poorest. The sacrament that allowed this gift to be received and given down through the ages is the Eucharist, through which the church receives and becomes the gift of God.
In the broken bread, Christ becomes “our other self” (St. Nicholas Cabasilas), and so we too can become peace. Eucharist is not a magic spell that zaps out violence, nor locking ourselves into church for self-protection while the world burns and we “stay safe.” Eucharist is pharmaceutical, for healing. It’s the gift by which we — despite our violence — become God’s gift of peace. Christ becomes the pharmaceutical Eucharist, not to cope with violence but to heal it and bring about God’s peace.
Early theologians described Eucharist as medication (“pharmakeia”). Theologically, this hearkened back to the practice in Greek cities (“poleis”) of healing the society by putting its violence on a “scapegoat,” who was driven out or killed so peace was restored within the city. Christ becomes for humanity the pharmakeia, the healing medication, taking on humanity’s violence and giving in return peace.
Every Christian should know, and test with their lives, what St. Ignatius of Antioch said about the Eucharist. He didn’t only say it with words — though his words, preserved by the seven churches he wrote to, remain available to the church. He said it with his life and (as he desired) by his death.
A bishop of the infant church, Ignatius was arrested and escorted to Rome for trial. He’d denied the Roman gods, opposing the state’s power. Along the journey, Ignatius visited and boldly wrote to the churches about his journey. He was “God’s wheat, being ground by the teeth of beasts into Christ’s pure bread” — becoming Eucharist, by receiving Christ as his “other self.”
Burning with love to demonstrate to all who Christ really was, Ignatius faced death eagerly, not out of masochism, but because he dearly wanted all to know that they too could become God’s gift of peace: “Nothing is more precious than peace,” he wrote, “by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.”
What do we do about the plague of violence at the heart of all nations? We discover that we who chew the eucharistic body are ourselves the gift of God, to be given to the poorest. We become the gift, trusting this gift heals hostilities and creates peace. Ignatius went willingly to be with the poorest of all: those condemned, tortured and murdered by the state. Who are the poorest people you know?
The sacrament that has allowed this gift to be received and given down through the ages is the broken bread through which the church also receives and becomes broken bread for the world.
Eighteen centuries after Ignatius’ death, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was imprisoned in Vietnam. For 13 years he was nourished by daily Eucharist, for himself and his people. He celebrated Eucharist in his cell, in a drop of wine held in the chalice of his hand. The wine was smuggled in to him by his people, in the guise of medicine.