LITURGY AND LIFE
By Bernadette Gasslein
We are to be spent, poured out and shared to give life
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 17:10-16
I remember the first widow I ever knew: she lived two doors down from us and, like many of our neighbours in the then-booming steel town of Hamilton, had come with her husband and young family from Sydney in Cape Breton to work in the steel mills of the city where “the product was steel, but the strength was people.” She was young and pretty like my mom; three of her kids were older than I, and her youngest son was my age. We made our first communion together. The big difference was that he had no father in his first communion pictures. We knew that life was very hard for them; they had moved far away from relatives, and then their dad had died, very suddenly, and very young. Our neighbour survived, in part, by taking in boarders, and by stretching her meagre funds to feed and clothe four growing boys.
But we also knew that she was generous. She always had cookies for us kids, and a ready welcome for a cup of tea. It would’ve been so much more natural for her to hoard every penny, every smile, everything that cost. Life had dealt her a hard blow in the years before Canada’s social security blanket had developed to its current level.
Widows in Jesus’ day were similarly vulnerable. A foreign widow, like Elijah’s conversation partner in the first reading, would be more vulnerable than a “local,” since, like our neighbour, she had no family around to support her and her son. The natural instinct, when you are that vulnerable, is to say, “I’m going to keep everything I have so I can protect my child.” When her oil supplies and meal ran out, she and her child would be as good as dead. When she overcame her fear, and trusted in the words of the prophet and in his God, she was rewarded with life. It was a good bet — and she won.
Jesus had no conversation with the widow whom he holds up to us. But his people-watching operated at a depth that would defy most of our observation skills. He saw in her a prefiguration of his own sacrifice.
She gave everything, in trust and love, to the God of Israel. She had nothing left, nothing to live on. She had spent the capital of her life. Jesus did the math, and saw total self-giving. He too was called to this utter surrender in trust to God. He too gave all he had to give.
A fascinating thread stitches together this reading, the gospel and the second reading from Hebrews where, once again this week, we hear Jesus’ self-emptying described in the language of sacrifice. Sacrifice has a rather tortured history in our understanding, and it is only in the last few years that scholars and theologians like Jesuit Father Robert Daly have helped us to understand Christian sacrifice in a healthier way. A great little article on this can be found in the archives of America magazine, the flagship North American publication of the Jesuits: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=2971.
Rev. Daly corrects the popular understanding of sacrifice as giving up something we love, and explains that Christian sacrifice begins with God the Father emptying the divine self in so much love and sending us Jesus, his only Son. Jesus responds to the Father’s love with the only kind of love he knows: complete, total, utter, trusting, self-giving love that doesn’t count the cost. Like the widow he observed, Jesus gave everything to God and to us, leaving himself totally vulnerable, completely trusting the one who loved him and sent him. Jesus and the widow embody the beatitude that is also today’s gospel acclamation: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus trusted that giving the ultimate gift — his life — would be received with yet another gift: life even more abundant.
When we gather to celebrate eucharist, we assemble, sometimes not conscious enough of our poverty and vulnerability. We are invited to risk everything we are and have, to be transformed by God’s Spirit. We surrender our poor gifts of bread and wine to be changed by the Spirit’s power into the body and blood of Christ. Like Elijah’s jars of meal and oil, this gift does not stop giving. Our poor gift of ourselves — our own body and blood — becomes more wholly the Body of Christ as we too are transformed by the Spirit’s power. We recognize once more that, no matter what, God will keep faith, execute justice, feed the hungry.
Singing the praises of the Lord who lifts up those we are bowed down, we are dismissed from eucharist to give everything we are. Now, like the widow’s coins and Christ’s body, we are to be spent, poured out, broken and shared to bring life to our world. Not only does this widow prefigure Christ’s own sacrifice, but her sacrifice prefigures how we are called to be and act in Christ.
Gasslein is the editor of Celebrate!, Canada’s award-winning pastoral magazine published by Novalis. For the past 40 years she has been engaged in various liturgical and catechetical ministries, leading workshops around the country. Gasslein holds a Licence in Sacred Theology with Specialization in Pastoral Catechetics from the Institut catholique de Paris. She and her husband live in Edmonton.