Flannery O’Connor was a devout Southern Catholic writer living in the heart of the Bible belt. Even though she died in 1964 at the age of 39 she is still an important voice to American literature. Her writing in some way or another always reflected her Roman Catholic faith, especially the theme of grace. She would say, “Grace changes us and change is painful.”
In 1950 when she was just beginning to blossom into one of the greatest Catholic writers of the twentieth century, she was invited to a fancy dinner party with the prominent author Mary McCarthy. There were a few other intellectual and literary figures at this dinner table and there was no question that Flannery O’Connor was the junior member of this elite circle of conversation. In a letter describing the scene O’Connor once wrote, “Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.” As the evening drew on, the talk turned to the Eucharist, and Mary McCarthy, who had been raised Catholic but had fallen away from the church, remarked that she thought of the Eucharist as a symbol and implied that it was a “pretty good one.” She most likely intended this condescending observation as a friendly overture to the Catholic O’Connor. But O’Connor responded in a shaky voice, “Well, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.” One can only imagine that the elegant dinner party broke up rather soon after that conversational bomb shell was dropped. In its bluntness, clarity, and directness, Flannery O’Connor’s remark is one of the best statements of the Catholic difference regarding the Eucharist. For us the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus, our King, and any attempt to say otherwise, no matter how cleverly formulated or smartly expressed is insufficient. The Eucharist is our King.
On this Solemnity of Christ, the King we recognize that our King is not like other rulers, or presidents. We genuflect to a king who voluntarily resides in a tabernacle as a divine prisoner. Our tabernacle even has a little crown on top of it. Our king is a humble king who reveals himself to us in the infant child of Bethlehem, in the poor carpenter of Nazareth, in the humble preacher of Galilee, in the crucified one of Calvary, in the tiny host of the tabernacle, and in the least of our brothers and sisters, the poorest of the poor. Our humble king is also a king who serves and gives himself freely. And he asks the same of us. This is how we will be judged.
A kingdom usually takes on the characteristics of its king and we have many examples throughout history, but I want to focus on a few kingdoms the first being 13th century France under the leadership of King Louis IX. Louis excelled in prayer and penance and his love for the poor. While ruling his kingdom he not only sought peace among his people, he also sought their spiritual welfare. He made sure that they were not only housed and fed but that they were also cared for spiritually, building churches, making sure all people had access to mass and the sacraments. Before dying he wrote a letter to his son giving advice. He wrote, “\Thank God always, pray to the Lord devoutly, be kindhearted to the poor and afflicted, be just to your subjects, side with the poor until the truth is known, and be obedient and devout to our mother the Church.” During King Louis’ time there was peace and a flowering of the church. He made the Kingdom of God known throughout his land.
The second kingdom is 16th century England under the leadership of King Henry VIII. History books say that Henry’s public persona was seen as harsh and egotistical. It is said that Henry remained Catholic in his beliefs but in the ultimate quest for a son to succeed him, he had to separate his kingdom from the Church, he married six times, dissolved monasteries, destroyed churches, confiscated their land, and executed those who disagreed him (St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher). During King Henry’s time there was distrust, and the church went into hiding. He obscured the Kingdom of God throughout his land.
The third kingdom is the kingdom that supersedes all kingdoms and that is the Kingdom of God. The Church gave us this Solemnity of Christ the King back in 1925. This was the time of the aftermath of World War I and Europe witnessed a swelling tide of secularism and skepticism about God’s existence. This trend was accompanied by a rising interest in fascism and communism. In attempts to stem this dark tide, the Church held up the image of Christ, the true King. A king who is just but also merciful reigning from the throne of a cross.
The Church feared that a people without the hope of God’s Kingdom would instead place their hope in fascism and communism kingdoms far less just and far less merciful. Government does not save.
As a people who hope in God’s kingdom it’s our responsibility to make that kingdom evident wherever we go. We take on the characteristics of our King and show the world that Christ is our king and that we bring his kingdom wherever we go. So we not only give food and drink to the hungry but we also give them the knowledge of being known, of being someone to someone. We not only clothe the naked with coats but we also clothe them with dignity and respect seeing that they too are made in the image and likeness of God. We not only house the homeless but we house them with care. Do we go out to meet the needy? Do we know them? Do we try to find them? This is how we will be judged.
I began this letter by writing of the Eucharist and how the Eucharist is no mere symbol. With this belief let us be careful as we approach the Eucharist. If the elements of bread and wine were only symbols of our desire and our spiritual creativity, they would pose no threat. But since they are the power and presence of God, they will change the one who consumes them. When we say “Amen” and receive the Sacred Host we better be prepared to live an eternal life in God’s kingdom and with His grace make that kingdom known to everyone.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley