With open hands and heart

by Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

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More than 40 years ago, my first encounter with Henri Nouwen and his good and holy heart came in the form of his book With Open Hands (Ave Maria Press, 1972). In it, Nouwen suggested that many of us come before God with clenched fists and, as a result, are unable to receive God's gifts, one of the most important of which is the sacramental and real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.


The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
Exodus 24:3-8
Psalm 116
Hebrews 9:11-15
Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Nouwen also suggested that it is fear that causes us to clench and refuse and, as a consequence, walk away empty. Don't be afraid of the One who wants to enter that space where you live, urged Nouwen. Don't be afraid to let God see your hate, bitterness and disappointment. Even if you have little to show or to share, don't be afraid to let it be seen.

When you dare to let go and relinquish your fears, your hand relaxes and your palm spreads out in a gesture of receiving. Patience is needed, of course, before your hands are completely open and ready to be filled.

This openness must be cultivated daily and requires our acknowledgement that, on our own, we are limited, dependent, weak and vulnerable. But when our hands are filled by God, we become inspired and empowered for service and for witnessing to the goodness and compassionate care of God.

Therefore, it is with open hands that we gather this day to celebrate the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Not with fear or doubt, but with humble openness, we allow our hands to be filled and ourselves to be fed with the bread of life.

In today's first reading, the ancient authors of Exodus put before us the covenant mediated by Moses. That covenant was conditioned by the Israelites' fidelity to its terms: the words and ordinances of the Lord.

Two times in this text, the people ratified the covenant by agreeing, "All that the Lord has said, we will do." With open hands and hearts, they agreed to be bound to God. To seal that union, the blood of sacrificed animals, i.e., their life force, was sprinkled on the altar and the people.

In today's second reading from Hebrews, the ancient author will compare the blood of the Hebrew sacrifices with that of Jesus, shed on Calvary for the redemption of all of humankind. With a "how much more" argument, the author of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus, as the ultimate high priest and the most perfect sacrifice, has mediated a new covenant. While the sacrifices of the temple liturgy provided a conditional and temporary release from ritual impurity, the sacrifice of Jesus provides eternal redemption.

Mark, in today's Gospel, will illustrate how the two Testaments come together and are fulfilled in Jesus. During the feast of Passover, at which time the Israelites remembered and celebrated their own passing over from slavery to freedom, Jesus celebrated his last meal with his own. Then, he himself would pass over from suffering and death to eternal life, thus enabling sinful humanity to follow his passage through death to life forever with God.

As a remembrance of this great gift of redemption and as a means of maintaining their communion with him, Jesus offered bread and wine, his sacramental body and blood, which they ate and drank. Then, Jesus announced a new covenant sealed by the blood he would soon shed "for many" -- that is, for all.

Each time Jesus' followers gather to be fed by the bread of the word and the bread of his body, each one can be sure of Jesus' presence. He is revealed in the sacred meal that we share. Also revealed is the truth that we who gather are members of the body of Christ. When we approach the altar and respond to the celebrant who presents the Eucharist and declares, "The body of Christ," we say, "Amen!"

That "Amen," as well as our open hands to receive the Lord, affirms our faith in the eucharistic body of Christ. But, in order to be true, we must also be ready to declare our communion with the body of Christ who sits beside us in the pew, the body of Christ whom we encounter at work, at school, in the marketplace and across the dinner table. Our "Amen!" also announces our willingness to open our hands and hearts to the suffering, needy and defenseless body of Christ whose hungers we are to feed and whose needs are our responsibility.

If our "Amen!" does not include our attention to all the members of the body of Christ, then it is a lie and our faith is a sham. May this not be so. Body of Christ, Amen!

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 22-June 4, 2015 print issue under the headline: With open hands and heart.

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