I would like to begin by saying that, in general, I am not a nostalgic person, though you may think differently in the next few minutes. As I get older, I begin to put together bits and pieces of the past in the hopes that I might find different and better paths for the future. Today I am thinking about 1993.
22 years ago today I had the great blessing of presiding at Mass for the first time, on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. I was thirty years old, brand newly ordained and ready to take on the world. I also resolutely admit that I was pretty green. I think I am still a little green around the edges.
My home parish was a very special one, composed mostly of very old Italian folks, some young folks and some in-between folks. It was dedicated to St. Therese of Lissuex, but everyone knew it by her nickname, Little Flower, or as Dolly Pierentoni always called it, The Little Florist.
Little Florist was glorious. It had a beautiful Church built in the middle of the depression by the ancestors of those families that still lived there. It was a product of love and sacrifice and that same love and sacrifice was still in evidence then. The parishioners still mowed the lawn and cleaned the Church, handled all of the work of the sacristy, raised money and of course cooked.
It was an Italian parish after all. Cooking was a sign of love. It was a sign of caring and it was also highly competitive.
What could we get the pastor to eat? How fat could we make the seminarian? The answer was 20 pounds fatter the very first summer. Who made the best cannoli? Who had the best home-made raviolis and of course, who had the greatest sauce? Because, for old Italian ladies, sauce was everything. It was the glue that held the world together. It was their claims to fame. And it was the feature of any parish activity.
Days before the event, the tomatoes were hand-picked, argued over, thumped, threats were delivered. The tomatoes were carefully blanched, peeled, seeded and then prepared for simmering. Nothing came from a can. These tomatoes were fussed over. Wine was added, of course, but it had to be Italian wine from our part of Italy, none of this crazy imported wine. Over the next six days the sauce was seasoned. A little of this went in and a little of that. Mama always included this spice in this ratio. Some peppers were also needed but only to threaten the sauce a little bit. Now a pinch of this and a dash of that. Only later would we get the sweet Italian sausage or the equally complex meatballs.
Sauce involved a kind of magic. It was an art, an art never to be repeated by future generations and that was the way it was meant to be. Grandma would always be remembered for her sauce.
Little Flower was famous for its sauce and for the love that made that sauce. Little Flower ladies were careful ladies and they were caring. Sauce was their calling card, their tour-de-force and it was present in the culture everywhere. Sauce was the base that carried everything else, pasta, or just some thickly-sliced bread.
For the Little Florist parish, sauce was identity, heritage, tradition, it was life.
Brothers and sisters, today we gather on this solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ to understand what the Eucharist is.
Of course, we have lots of potential answers to that question.
Some will say that it is an activity of the elite, to be exercised and practiced with the greatest precision so that any slackers will be left out. It is not for the faint of heart. If you are allergic to incense please don’t apply.
Some will say it’s just dinner, and fast food at that, nothing more. Please don’t prolong things, we need to get out after all, we have lives to live and we won’t be living them in an old church.
Some will say it’s alright, but really nothing to crow about, just a bit of harmless nostalgia to keep people moving along the way.
Others will say it’s just condimental, just a topping, just garnish.
But, if I learned anything from my old Italian ladies, I think I learned what the Eucharist is:
It is the very sauce of life. It is that loving thing, creating by the hands of God that carries everything else in this world. It is that heritage thing that reminds us of who we are. It is that real thing, that one real thing by which other things are judged.
It is the body that gives substance to the world
It is the blood that is its prime mover, its force, its illumination, its seducer, its intoxicator
It is the one thing, the one true thing that keeps the world from flying apart.
It is the very thing that Christ instituted to teach us who he is, the giver of our very sustenance, and the source of all things living.
Christ calls us here today to teach us who he is. But there is more. Once we know who he is, once we have tasted the wares of this altar, he asks us for something else. Once he has intoxicated us, He calls us here to serve one another. He calls us here to demonstrate how we all belong. He calls us here to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. He calls us here to love. He calls us here to learn who we are.
And here we are not talking about loving those like us, those who think like us, those whose fervor is as strong as ours is. He calls us to love the difficult, the unlovely.
He calls us to understand that ours is not a Church for the poor, but a Church of the poor.
He calls us to understand, calls us in this celebration to care so deeply, so profoundly for others that we forget ourselves, forget our petty needs, our tastes, our ideals, even our families and friends.
The intoxication of this Mass the drunkenness wrought by a wine made not far from home is the intoxication to forget everything in the pursuit of the one true thing. It is sober drunkenness an ability to say with absolute calm:
Behold the Lamb of God, Behold Him to takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.
On this solemnity if there is one thing I hope we are convinced about it is that the Eucharist fulfills our deepest needs. What do we want today: to belong, to find home, to be comfortable even in our affliction, , to meet one another, to meet God, to find true excellence, arête in the sauce of life.
Father Keucher, today this reality is calling to you, it is reaching out to you and inviting you to be a chef. You are now the chef that will confect what the people need to stay alive. Craft your dishes with love. Use only the finest ingredients and add a bit of spice. I know you have it in you.
Father, you have presented yourself today as a priest. Now do it. Do what you have been called to do. Serve the people. Pour out your love to give them what they need most, the Body and Blood of Christ, a living sign, indeed the very sauce of life.