It was not quite two months ago that my son, Charlie, was born.
After his birth, he had trouble breathing. I quietly left my wife's side for just a moment so that I could put my hand on his little struggling body. The nurses hurried around me trying to make sure that he was fine. After that,he was whisked away and connected to tubes and machines and given medicines.
About four hours later, I rode in the ambulance with him to the Cleveland Clinic while my wife stayed at the hospital to recover. Waves of tears washed over me as I sat with the little boy connected to so many tubes. In between the waves, I traced the path of the ambulance across the interstate and down Chester avenue until we arrived at a back alley entrance late in the dark of night. The experience of a sick child is one that some of you can understand.
My wife arrived the next day after an early release from maternity recovery. I hugged her and held her tight while the tears flowed again. Thankfulness for her mixed with fear for our little new born son and permeated ever corner of my being. They filled my mind and expanded my heart. They coursed through my veins and pounded in my ears. Batteries of tests, feeding tubes, and ventilators were added to the usual changing of diapers that new parents experience. It is only through the haze of sleepless nights that I can recall those first days.
That event changed my experience of mass. You see, I used to stand on the other side of the altar. I used to pray for all the parents and watch all of the babies while I led all of us in the celebration of the Eucharist. I had seen priests upset with mothers of screaming children, and seen priests preside carelessly over funerals. I never could do either one. I was always glad the children were there. I hope every mother could feel the joy that their presence brought me. At each funeral my heart would break, and at some I wept with the families.
My experiences of the Eucharist as a priest were vivid and meaningful with slight leanings toward the mystical. From the altar, I saw gleam of love shining from parents and the fiery darts of attraction between spouses and offered those gifts with the gift of Christ to be united in the embrace of Salvation and Divinity. At times, I smelled sin and evil in the congregation and in my own heart. Parishioners and priests plotted, stole, abused, sought revenge, and broke vows. Still the whirling angels connected us to the depths of the universe in the moment where we passed beyond past, present, and future at the summit of the Paschal experience. I encountered vivid holiness and goodness and felt my heart race and my soul rise in their presence. The power of life and death embodied in the Eucharist confronted me and memories of ancient rites and biblical fervor washed over me.
The climactic words of Christ shook me every time I spoke them, “He took bread and gave you thanks. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take this all of you and eat it.: this is my body which will be given up for you.” When supper was ended , he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise. Gave his cup to his disciples and said: Take this all of you , and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of a new and everlasting covenant.” These were the words that made sense of Christianity and priesthood for me. These were the words that brought life to vocation. These were the words that fleshed out the meaning of love, relationship, and sacrifice. They are the touchstone of my Christianity. For me, the Eucharist was never a boring place. mystery and surprise always hovered in the next moment like like the hesitant breath of a newborn.
Now, those experiences are joined by another world of experience. A world that many of you know well. It is a world that begins with falling in love and starting a family. It is a world mixed with desire, joy, fear, and anxiety. It is a world punctuated with hours of work and caregiving as well as Kodak and all-star moments. In this world I don't mind vomit, and I am happy to see a bowel movement because the next moment you smile and your eyes light up the world and my heart.
Last week, I said to my wife, “I love him so much, I feel like my heart will burst.” Looking at his tiny body huddled in my arms. His little limbs contain a hidden strength despite the feeling that I need to protect and care for him. He is not as fragile as he seems. My soul melts when I wake to watch my wife go, bleary eyed, to feed him. My dissolved soul spreads through my body as she hands him to me. I lull him to sleep among a thousand whispered prayers and fluttering angels.
So last week, kneeling in the pews of St. Mark's I heard the climactic words anew. Fr. John stood, larger than life echoing the words of Christ. “He broke the bread...take this, all of you, and eat it...this is my body....
After nearly two days without sleep in the NICU my body was broken. After a week, of going to work when my every thought was wondering if you were breathing my mind was broken. I realize all the parts of my life broken as they are help provide you with love, shelter, and nourishment. Charlie, take all the broken humanity that I am and let the love that holds it together nourish you.
“Take and drink ...this is the cup of my blood... a new and everlasting covenant.”
Once, on coming to a new parish I summed up my feelings this way, “Before, I even met you I loved you.” It was a mystical experience of universal love that many have shared with the Christian community. Now this mystical experience came to focus on one tiny heart and two eyes that barely opened or saw. It was a new covenant of Love. It was a new shared life, and it was certainly to be everlasting. Charlie, my blood is the blood of a new and everlasting covenant with you.
God Bless you Charlie.