In the mid 1990’s, I worshiped at an Episcopal church in New York’s Greenwich Village. Taking the same pew week after week, as most people do, I often found myself sitting near an older woman named Barbara. Each week during the prayer of consecration, when the priest said, “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you,” he or she raised the host for all to see. The congregation, in response, made the sign of the cross. Barbara did that too, but invariably I also heard her whisper something. Likewise, when the chalice was raised, we made the sign of the cross and Barbara whispered something.
An imposing woman in her late seventies, Barbara had been very active and influential in the parish for many, many years. Her formality and her position on the Vestry rendered her completely unapproachable, exacerbated by her austere features and her hair, which I am convinced she kept in the freezer. More important, I did not want to appear ignorant or stupid or just plain nosy. I was relatively new to the church—a “baby Episcopalian,” as the Rector called me—and I didn’t want anyone to know how little I knew, even though I neither saw nor heard anyone else whispering. Therefore, instead of simply asking Barbara what she was mumbling under her breath, I tried each week to sit closer and closer to her, straining to hear what she was saying during the elevation of the elements. Thinking about it now, I wonder what Barbara thought was happening, as each week I seemed to be more and more interested in her!
Finally, one Sunday after mass, I summoned up my courage and asked, “What is it that you whisper when the priest elevates the elements?” trying to sound ever so casual, as if I were asking, “Do you think it will rain?” Barbara looked at me blankly for a moment and then broke into a laugh, probably out of relief as she suddenly understood why I had appeared to be stalking her. “My Lord and my God!” she proclaimed. Now it was my turn to offer a blank stare. After an awkward moment of silence, Barbara explained, “That’s what Thomas said when he saw the Risen Lord.”
Later that day, I found the relevant passage in the Gospel of St. John, as follows (I had not yet discovered The Urantia Book).
But Thomas … was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:24-28, NRSV. See also Paper 191, Section 5).
Since then, like Barbara, my own automatic response to a raised host or chalice is, “My Lord and my God!” More importantly, two thousand years later—OMIGOD, no pun intended—I have seen.
June 11, 1999. At the same church, Barbara’s and mine, I was the altar server and lector at the 6 pm Eucharist. When the time came to receive communion, I knelt at the altar rail in my usual place, just to the right of Friar Mark, able to see only his vestments from about his thighs down, and his black wing-tips sticking out from under his alb. When he turned toward me to administer communion, for a split second his wing tips became a pair of sandals.
After mass, I told Friar Mark what had happened, that I’d seen Jesus, albeit from the ankles down. I had seen his sandals; I knew I did. This was not my imagination, or a hallucination, or the ravings of a religious fanatic. I had seen Jesus. Friar Mark was nonplussed by all this, dismissing my story with a casual, “I know,” as he changed back into his street clothes. Assuming he’d not heard or understood, I repeated my story. The response, again, was a very unanimated, “I know.” Was I not communicating or was he not listening? How could he—the most spiritual priest I knew—not be getting this? I tried one last time, asking that he stop what he was doing and listen to me, dammit!
His response knocked me for a loop. Looking right into my eyes, Friar Mark said, “I told you. I know. It’s always Jesus.” I just stood there, stunned. More softly, he continued, “If you’re really, really, really (really!) quiet, there is a break in the time/space continuum and you are back at the ‘first communion’ with the first—and only—celebrant.”
Friar Mark had emptied himself to become the vessel through which Jesus himself could offer the bread and wine to us. Of course, I realized in hindsight, given Friar Mark’s humility and his understanding, that his role as celebrant was not to be the center of attention but rather to get out of the way. Sadly, so many priests become arrogant and pompous, or bored and blasé, as if they were reading the phone book. (Remember those?) Perhaps because most of us, I think, are a bit bewildered, unsure upon ordination how to embrace the responsibility of celebrant.
Whether one believes in transubstantiation, as do the Catholics, or in consubstantiation, as do the Anglicans and Episcopalians, or—see Paper 179, Section 5—that the bread and wine are symbols is a debate for another day. Jesus said that he is “the bread of life” but nothing about the bread becoming his body. Nor did he say anything about blood. Regardless, standing in Christ’s stead and offering the consecrated elements to a congregation is an awesome position in which to find oneself. Not awesome in the way that people throw the word around about almost everything, but truly awe inspiring. Especially when one has been blessed to have seen, as I believe I have been.
But how did this happen and what did I really see? As the story is related in The Urantia Book, Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those in the ages to come who will believe even though they have not seen with the eye of flesh nor heard with the mortal ear” (191:5:5, emphasis mine).
I did not, therefore, see Jesus in the physical body he inhabited during his sojourn on Urantia, despite the Church’s belief in the resurrection of the body (see The Apostles’ Creed in The Book of Common Prayer). I saw what Jesus told his apostles future generations would see: “You behold me now… in the flesh, but when I return, it shall be … in the spirit.” Jesus explained, “The eye of flesh beholds the Son of Man in the flesh, but only the eye of the spirit will behold the Son of Man … appearing on earth….” (176:2.4). Thus what I saw, for a millisecond, was the spirit, revealed to me in the guise of a pair of sandals.
Even more astounding, as if that were not enough, Jesus said on more than one occasion, “… the Father and I are one. He who has seen me has seen the Father” (157:6.13 and 181:2.20). Have I? Seen God, that is? Moi? How is that possible? Well, decades of twice-daily meditations eased the way, I suspect. Sitting still, with as empty a mind as possible, opens the channel, not only when I am on my meditation bench but, ideally, off the bench as well. And so, for a moment, the veil was pulled back and time stood still. Nevertheless, I do believe that it can happen to anyone, at any time, in any place. You. Me. Everyone.
My Lord and my God!