Last week, my wife and I traveled to California. One of the places we visited for Mass was the cathedral in Los Angeles: Our Lady of the Angels, now marking its ten-year anniversary. It’s truly an amazing place: a fortress, really, designed to withstand the strongest California earthquake. As such, it doesn’t have delicate stained glass windows like we have here, depicting the saints. Instead, the thick stone walls are lined with what may be the most important, most beautiful, most meaningful work of modern art in a Roman Catholic cathedral:
Gorgeous, breathtaking, inspiring tapestries, created by the artist John Nava.
They are magnificent. And they achieve their greatness for a number of reasons.
First, they depict some of the most famous saints – Francis, Joan of Arc, Helen, Augustine – in a way that any of us would recognize. John Nava used real Angelinos, people he met on the streets and in the barrio, to pose for the figures. They look like people we might see on the subway or a bus. We know them.
Secondly, Nava calls this collection “The Communion of Saints.” And for good reason. The tapestries show all the figures standing, hands folded, facing the altar – as if in line to receive communion.
You don’t really appreciate the effect that has until you are in the cathedral for Mass. It takes on a whole new dimension. At communion, my wife and I stood to get in line, and saw dozens of other people on the side aisles and on the center, also in line.
But then, hovering above us all, were those incredible tapestries.
The image was striking and moving. So much so, I found myself blinking back tears. We were not alone in that vast space. We were accompanied by the communion of saints – we with them, and they with us. A vague artistic conceit became suddenly real.
I realized, in a startling way: we are all the Body of Christ, receiving the Body of Christ.
It’s an idea, I think, that carries an important message today, the feast of Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. But those tapestries also reminded me of something vital in the heart of Luke’s gospel.
This great feast is not only about communion.
It is also about community.
In Luke’s gospel, which gives us a powerful foretaste of the Eucharist, Jesus did not give individual loaves and fishes to individual people. He gathered the thousands together in large groups. What was blessed was then broken and shared by the community. The message here is clear: we do not experience our faith in isolation. We are part of something larger than ourselves. And it must be shared.
Communion is, to a great extent, about community.
It is about being united in love for Christ, love for the Eucharist, fidelity to the gospels. It is about sharing a common bond of faith and belief. And it is about taking Christ, quite literally, into ourselves—and then out into the world.
And: we do not do this alone. The Body of Christ, the grace of receiving that sacrament, is not intended to be kept in isolation. It is meant to be lived, to be extended to others, to be brought into the streets, onto the subways, into our homes and offices and workplaces by how we live, and how we love.
Communion is also about community.
This afternoon, we will make that idea manifest when we have our annual Corpus Christi procession. We will literally carry Christ into the world, in procession, taking him into the streets and showing a central tenet of our faith to a cynical and disbelieving world.
And we will do this, again, as a community.
This act has significance, beyond just displaying our Catholic identity.
The fact is: in carrying the Blessed Sacrament around our neighborhood, we walk with Christ.
And we walk with him because, every day, he walks with us.
He walks with us through everything, all our hardships and heartaches, our joys and our hopes. He knows our pains. He’s felt our wounds. He bends when we feel we are ready to break.
And: he does not leave us to face life alone. He walks with us. So, this day, we walk with Him. And we show the world how very much we love him, because of how much he loves us.
We celebrate the Body of Christ as the Body of Christ, in all its brokenness and beauty.
You see that, vividly, in those tapestries in Los Angeles. But you also see something more. There is one other detail that makes a profound impression. When you look up at those tapestries, you see that most of the saints are identified. There are names just beneath them, making clear who they are. But there are a handful who are unidentified: a mother with a baby, a couple young girls, some teenage boys of various races and ethnicities. They stand among the celebrated saints of history, in line to receive communion, too. They fit right in.
They are the saints whose names we do not know. We may see them every day and not realize it.
They could even, in fact, be any of us.
As we prepare to receive communion this Sunday, with the Communion of Saints, we are reminded that we are called to join those saints. We are reminded that we are being fed with the same Eucharist, uplifted by the same graces, as those great saints whose lives were changed immeasurably by the sacrament we are about to receive.
We are part of something greater than we can imagine, more beautiful than we can conceive.
And we have work to do.
We will have a beautiful Eucharistic procession this afternoon, with singing and altar servers and incense. I’d encourage everyone who can to take part—to bear witness, and walk with Christ.
But for each of us, the most important Eucharistic procession really happens after this Mass, and after every Mass, when each of us who has received communion walks through the doors of this church and carries Christ into the world.
No monstrance. No parade. No altar servers. No incense. No music.
Then, the great work begins. How will we show Christ then? How will we make him real to others?
How will we share what we have received in communion…with our community?