Now I know it’s still summer. But try to imagine a gray Scandinavian sky faintly lighting the snowy ground in a small Swedish village one early-winter Sunday morning. There, in the chilly little church, the local Lutheran pastor celebrates a Communion service for his small, somewhat somber congregation.
So begins Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 film Winter Light, an old favorite of mine, the only movie I know of that begins with a Communion service. Five worshipers kneel at the communion rail to receive Communion from their sad-looking pastor, who says to each, “The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you,” and again, a second time around, “Christ’s Blood shed for you.”
The film follows Pastor Thomas Eriksson through his Sunday – from the morning service to Vespers in the mid-afternoon darkness. Through it all, he seems somewhat troubled, preoccupied with himself, detached from the world around him. One of Pastor Eriksson’s parishioners, a fisherman, afraid the Chinese are getting the atom bomb, comes for counseling (prodded by his pregnant wife, who sensibly seems not so worried about the bomb but very worried about her husband). In response, the pastor rambles, referring to himself as “a spoilt, shut-in, anxious wretch,” which may well be true but hardly helps the poor, disturbed fisherman, who leaves and then shoots himself. Called to the scene, Pastor Eriksson dutifully rushes to the site; but. once there, he seems embarrassingly ineffectual. By now, the police have taken charge, and all the pastor can do is stand there while they do their job.
The unfortunate fisherman had come for counseling. Later that day, the old sacristan will come seeking spiritual direction, and the village schoolteacher will come looking for love. None of them get much from him. In fact, really the only thing they get from him that day – and the only thing that gets him out of himself enough to connect with any of them at all – is Communion, the Eucharist promised by Jesus in today’s Gospel [John 6:24-35} set in Capernaum’s sun-baked synagogue centuries earlier and half-a-world away – the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
Now, suppose that, instead of being focused so exclusively on himself and his problems, Pastor Eriksson had been able to appreciate and identify with the experience of the crowd in the gospel story we have just heard. Maybe he just might have been able to recognize how very much like him, how equally “spoilt, shut-in, [and] anxious” Jesus’ audience probably was that day in Capernaum – as were their ancestors before them in the desert, whom we just heard [Exodus 16:2] grumbling against Moses and Aaron. He might, maybe, even have begun to appreciate how Jesus was offering himself in the Eucharist in part as a remedy for all that, precisely as an alternative to what they could be on their own – much as the manna in the desert had been a remedy for the people’s hunger, an alternative to whatever food they could find on their own. Unlike the manna, however, which was (in the end) more like a temporary snack, the Eucharist is really more like a full meal – intended to remain with us, to change us into something new, to transform us, to get us out of ourselves and give life to the world.
This was something the Capernaum crowd would have a tough time accepting – as we shall see over and over again in the Gospel readings over the next few weeks. This was something Pastor Eriksson had a tough time accepting – as we see in his tragic inability to bring life into the fear-filled world of the suicidal fisherman. Not that I would necessarily have done any better in his situation! The fact is that, like Pastor Eriksson, we naturally tend to live - as Saint Paul says [Ephesians 4:17] - in the futility of our minds, clinging, however uncomfortably, to whatever is “spoilt, shut-in, [and] anxious” in ourselves.
The Eucharist, however, gives life to the world, precisely by signifying an alternative vision of life – life not as a problem, but as a gift – a gift from God who is so deeply connected with us as to become food for us for ever.
In Jesus’ sharing of his life with us through the Eucharist, we are introduced to a new pattern of love, hope, and meaning, which destroys detachment and creates connection. If only we could actually get out of ourselves enough to experience it as it is meant to be experienced! Then, we would understand the sense of Saint Augustine’s famous saying, “Become what you receive.”
If only we could actually - as Saint Paul says [Ephesians 4:22-24] - put away the old self of our former way of life and put on the new self created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth!
In the end, of course, Winter Light is just a movie. It simply portrays a Communion service. The real thing is … the real thing. And it’s here. Here, we experience the power to live the Eucharist and the life it gives to the world.
That begins when we appreciate that there is no moment when we are more obviously loved than when we are addressed with the words The Body of Christ.
Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 5, 2012