By Rev. Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, USCCB
Every Sunday, in fact, every day at Mass, the priest prays an offertory prayer. As he lifts the bread, the small host that will become the body of Christ, the priest says:
“Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.”
This short, easily missed prayer “locates” in one sense, the Holy Eucharist. The bread that is about to be transformed by the words of the priest and the action of the Holy Spirit is acknowledged to be already the gift of the “Lord God of all creation” and the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands.” The simple bread that the priest holds is itself, even before its supernatural transformation into the true body and blood of Christ, the natural gift of God as the “fruit of the earth.” The natural bread itself reflects the ordinary gift of the interaction of God and human beings – bread does not arise on its own. Bread arises when human beings take and mix the gifts God has given in the created world, flour and water, and bakes them by the gift of fire. The psalmist notes this sublime connection: “You make the grass to grow for the cattle and the plants to serve man’s needs, that he may bring forth bread from the earth …” (Psalm 104:14).1 Human hands take up and shape the natural ingredients and transform them into the recognizable substance of bread.
So too with the wine. The wine that will become the blood of Christ is likewise the natural “fruit of the vine” given by the “God of all creation.” Having thus offered the bread and the wine to God in the offertory, the priest then begins to pray the Eucharistic Prayer. In this prayer he prays the institution narrative, the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. It is at these words, that the consecration takes place and through the miracle of transubstantiation the bread and the wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. In the consecration, the natural gifts of bread and wine become the supernatural gift of the true body and true blood of Christ, the first fruits of the New Creation.
Just prior to the consecration, the priest utters a small but alarming phrase, “… on the night he was betrayed…”2 The gears switch. All too suddenly, the language of creation and fruit, of nature and goodness seems to disappear and is replaced with an entirely new locus of action: betrayal. Betrayal speaks of treachery and infidelity, of a knife in the back, of the willful and duplicitous attempt to destroy a friend. Betrayal is so ugly because an enemy cannot commit it. Only a friend can come close enough to betray us. In the words of the priest, the Holy Eucharist is now more specifically located, without losing the context of nature and gift, in the context of abandonment and betrayal. Fire transformed the flour and water into bread, but now a new fire is introduced – the intensity of betrayal. Betrayal is the world’s cruel ingredient. But sadly, it has often found its way into the workings of the church.
Recall the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The young man is going from the city of the Temple, Jerusalem, to the city of the world, Jericho. He is going from the holy place to the place of backroom deals. And on the way he falls in with robbers. He was beaten and robbed. But I bet he didn’t feel betrayed. It comes as no surprise that bandits rob. But then along comes a priest, presumably on his way from Jericho to the holy city. The beaten man probably squinted through his now-swelling eye, blinking through the sweat and blood and quickly felt safety and relief when he saw the priest approaching. “At last, someone to help me. A priest, a person of integrity and prayer, a friend.” And the priest passed by. He didn’t just pass by. He passed by “on the opposite side” (Lk. 10:31). That’s grueling betrayal. Someone who is supposed to be a friend who sees you wounded and beaten by the side of the road … and passes by on the opposite side.
And this betrayal happened twice. The Levite, another supposed friend, “saw him, [and] passed by on the opposite side” (Lk. 10:32). The Levite probably had good reasons for doing so. After all, he was a Levite and was likely on his way to pray. He probably made a mental note to pray for this victim. But there is no way to pretend that emotional barbed wire is a white picket fence. The Levite passed him by, on the opposite side. He didn’t want to be seen there. He pretended he didn’t see what he was seeing. That’s betrayal. Its traumatic. It triggers an avalanche of shame adding another layer of fallout that further smothers an already devasted landscape. And it leaves wounds on the soul far deeper than the wounds that the bandits left on the man’s body. At least the robbers eventually stopped hitting him. Betrayal is a trauma that doesn’t stop when the person leaves.
When were you betrayed? Do you speak about it? You might not, because betrayal’s blade not only destroys safe spaces but leaves the shrill, sharp and enduring lesson that no places are safe. Betrayal haunts the heart and wounds the soul. It casts off a piece of the soul into a sore orbit of secrecy and fear. If we do speak about when we were betrayed, it may be to construct a pseudo safe place of excuses, explanations or denial. These only deepen and deaden the hurt. If we do share the pain of a past betrayal, we might be told to simply “get over it” or “that’s life.” But you don’t and it’s not. Betrayal’s pain doesn’t age. Thirty years is the blink of an eye. Its pain does not have an expiration date. In fact, entrenched responses such as that only deepen the shame. They wreck, ruin and rewound.
Where do we go with our betrayals? We might go to a lot of places. Some people go to substances. Alcohol is the oldest medication known to man. Intoxication slowly accelerates past the pain but only deepening holes in the soul it pretends to fill. The liquid merry-go-round cranks up at five o’clock as the ice tumbles in the glass and simply goes along in its same sad circles. Some people sink into activities and disappear for decades into workaholism and pleasing others. Or some others stare into a screen for years. The screen is the number one hiding place in the United States. There is an old saying that television is simply valium with cord attached. Anything we want is a tap away at the tip of our fingers. We can control anything on that screen, or so we think. But so often the internet and continuous channel surfing are roadmaps to deeper loneliness and isolation, of numbing muteness of feeling and daily life. Some people let the pain do the talking. Gossip is simply the behind the back chatter that tries to repeatedly push someone else down so we can feel like we are on the rise. But these techniques disguised as remedies are just more numbing betrayals, tokens of a cruel emotional commerce. They are more of the same. Where do we go with our betrayals?
We must go to a safe place. For many this can be spiritual direction or prudent counseling and/or safe communities. Safe connection heals. Safety allows us to find our way through betrayal and patiently untangle the twistedness of countless maneuverings. The pain of trauma yields only gradually in a safe place as we stagger through the prolonged and grim toil of rugged inner work fraught with risk. In a safe place we can chip away at, dig around, dust off and sort through the crusted layers on no predictable schedule. Treasures break through and slowly emerge from underneath a pile of formidable emotional debris. We find support and connection. Even with these important steps in place, we must go to Jesus.
Ultimately, Jesus is the only One who will understand. We go to Him in the Eucharist. It was in the context of betrayal that He gave us the Eucharist: “…on the night he was betrayed …” Jesus knows. He knows what it is like to be betrayed. Judas, one of the Twelve Apostles, betrayed Jesus. And the other Apostles all deserted Him. Judas and the others were not just casual acquaintances of the Lord. Judas and the others had been called especially by Jesus. They dwelt with Jesus, listened to His teaching, saw His miracles firsthand and prayed with Him. Jesus is no stranger to the pain of betrayal. He knows the depths of every pain, hurt and alienation we can experience. From the betrayal of friends, spouses, parents or our children – from the betrayal of coaches or mentors, of leaders and guides … He knows those pains not from the outside like someone who has simply taken a quick tour. He knows our pain from the inside.
And Jesus transforms the pain and suffering. He endures it. The Eucharist is His gift given just as He enters upon His suffering and supernaturally connects the bread and wine with the suffering of His Cross, His body offered on the Cross and His blood poured out – such that the bread and wine are transformed into His true body and true blood. Jesus did not choose to give us the Eucharist during the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), or as the climax of the feeding of the five thousand (Mt. 14:13-21) or the day He walked on water (Mk. 6:45-56). The Lord chose precisely the context of painful betrayal to give us the Holy Eucharist. There are times we simply can’t walk on water. Betrayal is one of those times.
Just as the original creation brings forth wheat from the seed, so the Lord, from the seed of betrayal, through His enduring trust in the Father’s love, in the Holy Spirit, brings forth new life. The Eucharist isn’t a magic trick emerging with the snap of the fingers. It is not “success” as the world describes it or the old story of the underdog who comes from behind for the victory. The Eucharist is far more. It is the font and apex of entire mystery of the crucible of grace. We hold on to the Cross in the deepest hour of our own vulnerable suffering, even as we feel shattered in hardship after bottomless hardship. It is the story of Job clinging in the dark night to God alone. So often we seek consolation as a sign or a confirmation of God’s favor. But more often, the only sign we receive is the sign of Jonah (Mt. 12:39). The struggle itself is often the sign that God sends. And our struggles, felt in the marrow of our bones, are often traceable to the betrayals we have experienced. The Eucharist nourishes a longstanding trust that steadfastly endures. In the spiritual life you become what you endure.
The Holy Eucharist “is the source and summit of the Christian life.”3 Theologians and catechists express and re-express the articulation of this theological truth in ways that we hope will bring the insight into the life of the believer to deepen and further motivate the life of faith. While the refinement of expression to deepen the theological insight gains momentum, it may often be the case that motivation lags not for intellectual reasons. So many have lost the connection with what connects us to theology in the first place. Betrayal severs connections. Just as we bring natural fire to the flour and the water to make bread, we bring the fire of our betrayals to our union with Christ that He may transform our pain into new hope. And His grace restores the connection to hope. Grudges aren’t relieved by revenge. Uniting with Christ on the affective level as One who offers the deepest gift in His own hour of betrayal can connect deeply and restore the motivation to attend Mass and adoration. When we endure with Christ, a new and enduring source begins to open ever more deeply in us, sustaining others and calling us forward to a new and prevailing summit.
Rev. Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield is the author of The Human Person: According to John Paul II (Pauline, 2010) and serves as the General Secretary of the USCCB.