Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, March 2010
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I often feel embarrassed standing at the altar alone on Sunday morning. I lift my arms out from my sides, hold my palms up and offer verbal prayers on behalf of the community. My body assumes this posture while everyone in the community is kneeling. I sense my feet on the ground, my hands raised up, my voice projecting and so often I feel alone.
I experience this deep loneliness because I take seriously this responsibility to offer people’s lives to God. When I feel my arms weaken and hear my voice quiver, I know that the emotional weight of people’s lives bears down on me. Every Sunday I feel this profound body workout as I lift up my heart in prayer standing at the altar of celebration and communion.
Ministering among people who suffer poverty and loss in our urban parish has formed in me a deeper understanding of celebrating Eucharist. Praying with people who have no power in our culture strips me of any assumption that being at the altar is about my own authority, talent or ego. I come to realize that the gesture of opening my arms in prayer is my real work, my daily confrontation with God and myself.
At the altar I come to grips with the fact that people suffer beyond my ability to offer solace, change or even consolation. Praying amid people suffering homelessness connects me to real human need. Here, I am united in heart and soul with people who kneel in prayer. I do not think more of myself as the only person standing.
Looking into the faces of people bent over the pews during Mass changes me. I stand at the altar on behalf of people who do not know where to turn with their pain, uncertainty and challenges of life. I feel in my bones a deep connection to people’s unanswered questions. I pray every Sunday that there will be enough grace to fill the void in every heart.
I look to the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ for solace among people starving for the basic needs of life. The disciples knew of the hunger of the crowd gathered to hear Jesus. They approached him, scratching their heads about how to feed the vast number of people. Jesus tells the disciples to give people food, taking responsibility for helping people get through their hunger. Of course the disciples complain to Jesus that only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish will not be enough. Jesus offers a blessing on the measly portions. Everyone finds satisfaction, and leftovers fill twelve baskets.
I complain weekly to Jesus that people need more than what I can offer them. In our small parish, hunger for companionship fills the chapel on Sunday. I often wonder if Jesus is listening to the parents who have just lost their lonely, gay son to suicide. I question the compassion of Christ when I hear of the gang rape of a teenager after a school dance. I want Jesus to be around for the elderly man who was beaten by his son for a measly inheritance.
Standing at the altar on Sunday, I feel the weight of all these needs on my outstretched arms. This is the heavy lifting of my ministry as a priest. I learn from the hungry disciples to bring these needs to the person of Jesus. I trust even in moments of profound hunger and need that together we will all be fed; we will all discover love and we will all find the healing we need.
As I pray at the altar on Sunday, I also view people torn apart by the judgment of other people and the condemnation of society. This need for reconciliation bears down even more on my extended arms and open hands. I realize every Sunday that my posture at the altar remains so countercultural. Here, my open hands must also be a gesture of hospitality and welcome. This goes against our human instincts to clench our fists at drug users, prostitutes, street teens or people who threaten the status quo.
In Luke’s Gospel, a woman comes uninvited to the home of a Pharisee. She arrives with an alabaster flask of ointment because she knows that Jesus is dining there. Her reputation as an outcast threatens everyone. She bends down to the feet of Jesus and weeps. She dries his feet with her long hair and kisses them. She anoints the person of Jesus, the feet of the Savior. She peels off the labels that people have placed on her as she reveals the love within her. Her action of love and tenderness becomes our moment of reconciliation.
I learn from this woman that if I am to remain at the altar with open-handed prayer, I must also wash the feet of our culture’s outcasts. I must learn even more to bridge the gaps among people who judge others. I must anoint people’s fear when unkind labels condemn them. I must kiss the feet of people abused by our society’s outpouring of hate.
My arms outstretched in prayer modeling the sign of the Crucified also tells me that I must take up my cross daily. I carry this burden when I welcome the lost sheep and embrace the homeless veteran. This heavy lifting will never end. I see in my gestures at the altar on Sunday the connection of how I live the limits of my life during the week. I discover at the altar that I am to lose my life in order to save it.
I understand now amid drug users and people suffering mental illness that standing at the altar on Sunday is not just a perfunctory rubric. This is the place of genuine love. Jesus tells me to keep my hand on the plow and never look back. So I keep my arms out from my side and my palms empty. I keep my eyes on the faces of people kneeling in the pews. I enter more deeply into my loneliness and discover again the people of God, the Body of Christ.