Yesterday was the feast of Corpus Christi — the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. To celebrate, the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint Philip in Atlanta hosted a very special Eucharist indeed. This week the cities of Atlanta and Decatur are hosting the 2012 International Gathering of L’Arche — the federation of communities founded by Jean Vanier (and lovingly written about by Henri Nouwen) in which persons with intellectual disabilities and non-disabled volunteers and assistants create homes together, as a humane alternative to institutionalization, which would otherwise be the fate for so many persons who, because of cognitive limitations, are not in a position to live independently. L’Arche was founded almost fifty years ago when Vanier, son of a Canadian politician, invited two men with disabilities to live with him in his home in France. Today, L’Arche is a worldwide organization, with a presence on every continent and in over forty countries. The Atlanta chapter of L’Arche is relatively young — in fact, our first home is only opening later this year. At the International Gathering, delegates from around the world have convened at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA to meet, appoint new International Coordinators and otherwise conduct business on behalf of the international federation. Of course, it’s a week not only for conducting business, but also for building community, having fun, seeing the sites (such as visiting the Martin Luther King Center and Ebenezer Baptist Church) and joining together for worship and song. This last dimension of the gathering brought eleven busses from Agnes Scott to Buckhead, the bustling north Atlanta neighborhood where the stunningly beautiful Episcopal Cathedral hosted the community, and its friends, for a truly amazing time of worship.
The Eucharist was presided over by Archbishop Roger Herft of Perth, Australia and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA. The email we received about the service said that Bishop Schori would be preaching, which was part of the draw for us; as it turned out, she didn’t preach — Archbishop Herft did — and while it was a disappointment not to hear her, his sermon was wonderful indeed, knitting together an earthy and celebratory theology of the Body of Christ with an affirmation of the work L’Arche does in the world. The Archbishop quoted Merton — I can’t remember the exact quote, let alone where it comes from, but the gist of what he said was “you’ve encountered Christ in scripture and in the Blessed Sacrament. Now carry Christ to the world.” L’Arche, indeed, does precisely that.
But this service really wasn’t about the Anglican bigwigs who officiated; rather, it was about the L’Arche community itself, which in our experience is a community of joy and gladness. And that spirit was everywhere present at the Cathedral during this two hour long service. L’Arche’s own whimsically named “Holy Smoke Band” provided the music, with banjo, guitar, piano and drums lending a festive air to the singing, with both songs and liturgical music sung in a variety of languages (one of our favorites was the Iona chant, “Take O Take Me As I Am,” which was sung in English, French, German and Spanish). Scripture readings and parts of the liturgy were conducted in French and Spanish as well as English, giving the entire worship experience a truly “Pentecostal” feel. Scripture passages included a reading from that most mystical of chapters, Ephesians 3 (concerning the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ), as well as Jeremiah’s description of being like a tree planted by water, and then the selection from the Sermon on the Mount about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. But it was not enough to simply read these passages! During the Jeremiah passage, several L’Arche folks stood at the front of the church, waving large branches in a most “tree-like” fashion. During the Ephesians reading, ropes were passed out among the congregation, stretched out throughout the long cathedral, a metaphor no doubt of the “length” of Christ’s love. And as Bishop Schori read the Gospel passage, two dozen or so L’Arche members circulated throughout the cavernous nave, carrying beautiful and colorful paper birds that “flew” on strings attached to the ends of long sticks. Likewise, to anchor the central image of the feast — the Body and Blood of Christ — in earthly, embodied imagery, the community brought huge clusters of grapes and a sheath of wheat to the front of the cathedral, setting these gifts on a table directly in front of where the Eucharistic gifts were shared with the congregation. It was a lovely, silent reminder of the essential earthiness and corporeality we all share.
The service included a variety of beautiful moments, such as when a L’Arche member from India sang a blessing to the congregation to mark the passing of the peace, or the one person with a booming voice who prayed just a little bit more slowly than everyone else — so his stentorian “AMEN!” rung out through the church after everyone else fell silent. For Fran and Rhiannon and me, it was a delight to see a number of our local L’Arche friends, lost in a sea of lovely faces from around the globe. It felt like such an honor to have the Presiding Bishop present, really making this not only a moment of hospitality on behalf of Atlanta, but truly on behalf of Christians throughout America.
It’s easy to hold a concept like “the Body of Christ” in abstract thought, locating it in bread and wine or in a cerebral notion of “the church.” God bless communities like L’Arche, where people in their messy human imperfections come together and remind one another that, truly, WE are the body, no matter how limited, wounded, clumsy, off-key, or otherwise not-quite-perfect we might be. And we can’t understand each other because we speak different languages, and we don’t all look the same and sometimes we make each other feel uncomfortable. And it’s all okay, In Christ, we are made one, and we are made whole.