Recently, I was watching an episode of a television crime drama. The episode was a typical crime drama story about murder, but the background of the story was class struggle. There was a group of wealthy people who were exploiting a group of poor people. The writers of the episode were very clever; early in the story they tried to get the audience to sympathize with the poor people and despise the wealthy people. This, however, was nothing more than misdirection. At the end of the story, it turned out that both sides of the class struggle were equally culpable for the murder.
One of the wealthy characters in the story had a wonderful line; he said, “I see it, I want it, I get it.” The unvarnished greed and shallow materialism of the character made him easy to despise, even after he became a murder victim.
We live in a culture driven by consumer values. The despicable rich man’s phrase, “I see it, I want it, I get it” is an accurate summary of the way we are taught to live. The panic buying and grocery hoarding that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic is a clear illustration of this consumer value. The shoppers who went to the stores early saw commodities that might be in short supply, they wanted those commodities, and they bought them – without giving a second thought to the fact that their self-serving behavior might deprive others of necessary items.
There has been another form of consumerism going on recently, one that hasn’t been mentioned in the news media but is no less shallow, materialistic, and self-serving as hoarding groceries. At this point, I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve heard about clergy staffing drive-through lines to distribute Holy Communion, Confession, and even palms for Palm Sunday. Each time I hear one of these stories, I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.
I’m sure that everyone participating in these drive-through deliveries of Sacraments and sacramentals thinks they’re doing something virtuous and devout. I’m also sure that the thought process that led to that conclusion is worthy of leading them to be committed to a mental health care facility. In what crazed, alternate reality does it make sense to choose to organize or participate in a large gathering of people at time when large gatherings of people are the principal form of transmission of a deadly viral disease? It is utter insanity to line up at churches or anywhere else, even if the lining up is done in automobiles. If only a single person in the line is infected, every person in the line can become infected.
Is it worth risking one’s life and the lives of others to get Holy Communion, or Confession, or palms? Yes, of course it is, if one is a consumer in search of consumer commodities. You see it, you want it, you do whatever it takes to get it – even if it means endangering your life and the lives of others.
The coronavirus pandemic is a horrible tragedy, but perhaps there is some good that might result from it. If the baptized can acknowledge that they are driven by tacitly held consumer values, perhaps there is the possibility of conversion away from self-serving behavior and toward authentic faith.
Tonight, we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. A consumer’s attitude toward Eucharist can only lead one to feel deprived of an object of desire on this night. The Bishop has suspended all public Masses. There is no possibility of receiving Holy Communion on the day we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist. It is a consumer tragedy of epic proportions. It also lays bare our gross materialism and shallow, self-serving behavior.
Tonight’s Gospel reading says that, at the end of the meal, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. (Jn. 13:5) He performed a servant’s work; he willingly made himself inferior to his followers. From the point of view of consumer culture, this event portrays Jesus as existing solely for the purpose of serving our personal needs and wants. From Jesus’ point of view, the event had a very different meaning. He said, “as I have done for you, you should do for one another.” (Jn. 13:15) This is not permission to act as a consumer; it is a command to reject consumer values. Specifically, Jesus was commanding his disciples to give to others the compassion and generosity that is owed to all people.
If Eucharist is a commodity to see, want, and get, then tonight is the saddest of all nights. If, on the other hand, Eucharist is an action that serves others’ needs, being unable to attend the Mass of the Lord’s Supper affords a unique opportunity to experience the true meaning of Eucharist.
Jesus summarized his Eucharistic banquet with his disciples by commanding them to serve one another with an attitude of humble devotion. This is a command that can be accomplished at any time and in any place; it can be practiced as fully and devoutly at home as in church.
If the baptized could actually believe that Eucharist is not a commodity to see, want, or get but a command to fulfill, then tonight could be the most joyous and fulfilling night of the year because making it joyous and fulfilling would require only that they act with humility and care toward those around them. If you feel deprived of something because you won’t be able to see, want, and get Holy Communion tonight, perhaps it’s the result of the lack of a lot more than a Sacrament.