September 23, 63 B.C.: Birthday of Octavian, Caesar Augustus

I began my love/hate relationship with the Roman Empire when I declared a Classics major at the age of nineteen, which was…um…decades ago. As anyone whose feet have strolled on a Roman road in France, or watched one hilarious scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” (“What have the Romans ever done for us?”), the reasons to admire the technical achievements of the empire are many, from ports to aqueducts, from roads to the famous fish sauce garum, which became a sign of fashionable Romanitas on tables throughout the empire. The accomplishments of Augustus are real and impressive. While the quotation found in Suetonius, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,” may be apocryphal, it rather accurately depicts the changes in Rome under Augustus’ leadership. His accomplishments were not all military; as he says in his Res Gestae, a copy of which anyone can read inscribed on the side of the Richard Meier building housing the Ara Pacis in Rome, “I rebuilt eight-two temples of the gods in the city by the authority of the senate” and “when the taxes fell short, I gave out contributions of grain and money from my granary and patrimony, sometimes to 100,000 men, sometimes to many more.” With every empire, how the benefits are provided is always the problem. Augustus the highest benefactor was called Son of God, Lord, Savior of the World, and Redeemer, and everyone knew this because they saw these titles symbolized in the great building projects and literally expressed on inscriptions, coins, statues, altars, cups, and so on. He had at his service a fleet of “Mad Men” who knew how to get the message across.
Everyone knew it, but not everyone believed it. Many Jews in particular knew that the covenant of justice, mercy and love with the God of Israel could not be reconciled with the imperial covenant. Many Jews, for example, saw that there was a choice to be made regarding to which covenant we belong. The Roman covenant promised peace (at the price of submission) from the top down and in large part through violence, intimidation, bribery and a kind of “soft power” that tried to lure people into believing that Romanitas was the most desirable of identities. Those Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth should be called Son of God, Lord, Savior of the World, and Redeemer actively, and peacefully, denied that Augustus and emperors after him played those roles and thereby enacted a kind of treason. This near-constant critique of and contempt for empire is often missed by readers of the New Testament. Although that collection of books is shot through with this non-violent opposition, perhaps it is most easily recognized in the book of Revelation. John of Patmos employed both biblical and imperial symbolism to broadcast that the oh-so-attractive luxury items catalogued in Revelation 18:12-13 carry too high a price: that of human lives (18:13).

Our own list of luxury goods is long; we might substitute clothes, coffee and — personal gasp — chocolate, for myrrh, incense, and frankincense in that list. The cost, however, to our planet, to our shared humanity, and thus to our souls, is too high. Since absolute personal refusal to participate in the global economic system is nearly impossible at this point in our increasingly small world (as well as being of questionable consequence in such a vast system), the witness of our tradition holds our feet to the fire to work for the justice proclaimed by those who spoke in our Scriptures for the God of Israel and to pray for ourselves, the powerful of human history, as Pope Francis has in Laudato Sí:

Enlighten those who possess power and money

that they may avoid the sin of indifference,

that they may love the common good, advance the weak, 

and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
 Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College.

Receiving the Eucharist with the Proper Disposition

Father Michael Schmitz has one of the most effective campus ministries in the country at the University of Minnesota.  He tells a story about back when he was in the seminary in the late 1970s.  Though we wouldn’t do it today, back then his particular seminary used regular loaves of bread for Holy Communion. During the distribution of the Eucharist the priest would break off pieces and give them to the people when they came up to the altar.  Though they tried their best, there were always crumbs that would fall to the floor.  One of the seminarians would stay in the chapel after Mass every day and quietly and reverently kneel down and eat all the crumbs off of the floor.  One day Schmitz asked him why he did that, and the answer was something that he would never forget.

real presenceThe seminarian had spent a year in China as a missionary.  He heard a true story about the days when the Communists first took over, and how they would go into churches and ransack everything.  One day they attacked a Catholic Church.  They took down all the statues and broke them to into pieces.  They smashed out all of the stain glass windows, and toppled the altar.  Then they took the tabernacle and through it out the back door.  The priest watched in horror as it hit the ground and all of the consecrated hosts were scattered.  There was nothing he could do.  The soldiers had arrested him and locked him in a tool shed in back of the church.  The priest was in there for days, as three young Chinese soldiers stood guard with rifles.  He kept an eye out for the scattered hosts as he prayed, asking that God would somehow send deliverance.

That evening, once it was dark, he saw a little girl, about 10 years old, outside.  She hid behind the trees and bushes so that the guards wouldn’t see her.  Then she kneeled down and picked up one of the sacred hosts with her mouth.  She slowly and reverently consumed the host and left.  The children were taught that they could never touch the Blessed Sacrament, and they could only receive once a day.  So she returned each evening.  Darting in and out between the shadows.  And each night she would kneel down and consume one of the hosts.

The priest knew how many hosts had been in the tabernacle.  And he watch as the girl returned every night until there was only one host left.  The priest kept an eye on that host from the window of the shed, and he also kept an eye on the guards.  That night he saw the little girl again.  She was quiet, fast and very careful not to be noticed by the soldiers.  She knelt down and consumed the very last host, and as she got up, she tripped and fell.  The guards heard her and rushed over.  Then they beat the poor little girl to death with the butts of their rifles.  With tears in his eyes, the seminarian said, “That’s why I do it.  That’s why I eat the crumbs off the floor every day.  I never forgot that story, and ever since then, there’s nothing more precious to me than the Blessed Sacrament.”

In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, in what is known as the Bread of Life Discourse, are some of the most profound words in all of scripture. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  Jesus told the Jews that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, and that whoever eats this bread will live forever.  And the bread that He will give is his flesh for the life of the world.

The Jews understood this very literally, and that’s why most of them left and went back to their families and former ways of living.  They said, “This is a hard saying, who can accept it?”  Jesus didn’t try to explain that he was just speaking symbolically.  No, he meant exactly what he said.  The Church has understood from the beginning that the Bread of Life refers to the Sacrament of the Eucharist.  The New Testament scriptures make this clear, and so does the history and testimony of the early church.

Saint Justin, around the year 145, explained what the Church believes about the Eucharist: “We call this food Eucharist, and no one is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is hereby living as Christ has enjoined.  For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught by his apostles, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic Prayer set down by him, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus.” The Eucharist is indeed the “Bread of Life,” and by it we are nourished for all eternity.

At Mass, the King of the universe comes down from heaven, onto the altar and into you and me.  When we receive the Bread of Life with the proper disposition, we are changed forever.  Disposition is an attitude of mind and heart.  Let me share with you an example of someone who had the proper disposition.  One Saturday morning, I was at Mass sitting in a pew beside a young boy in the second grade who was receiving his first Holy Communion that day.  He had missed receiving his first Holy Communion with his class.  His father was sitting on the other side of him……When the time came, the young boy went up to receive Communion.  He bowed reverently, received in his hands and consumed the sacred host.  When he returned to his pew, he knelt and prayed.  I knelt down next to him.  After several minutes his father turned to him and asked, “Son, do you feel any different now that you have received your first Holy Communion?”  The boy turned and looked his father in the eye and said, “Yes, Dad, I do feel different.  I feel very different.  I feel God inside.”

That young man received Communion with the proper disposition, the attitude of mind and heart that leads to eternal life.  Saint Cyril, in the 4th century, said that the Christian who consumes the Bread of Life becomes a “Christbearer,” one body and blood with him and the covenant is sealed.  Then we are sent out of the church to be what we are called to be – a sacrament, a visible sign of God’s invisible grace for the whole world to see, and know and draw closer to him.  This is the proper disposition.  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  This is why we do it.

Deacon Greg Ollick is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College.