Eucharist and the Dying Poor

by Joel Klepac

“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner” is my consolation through the streets of Galati, Romania. Walking with me is a young man who has spent 13 of his long 22 years on the earth surviving on the streets. He knows all the short cuts and alleys, he knows the girls who beg and the boys running after cheap glue, he knows the kiosk ladies, and where to find a pumice stone, or a bandage for self inflicted wounds. He also knows the “Our Father” and prays spontaneously for five or ten minutes, simple, beautiful prayers which surely are heard by Christ. I say the Jesus Prayer partly out of habit, or sometimes spiritual pride that I have found the true faith, and sometimes sincerely, but often I am left feeling more like the Pharisee than the tax collector.

This young man has stripes across his right arm self-inflicted wounds common to many children who were neglected and denied the opportunity to bond with a mother. One kid explains the wounds very simply. You get upset. Your blood pressure gets so high that you cut yourself to let out some of the pressure. Outer pain relieves inner.

There are quiet moments when I sit with him that I see Jesus. As we prayed once, I put my hand on his knee. A few minutes later he tenderly took my hand into his. As the priest spoons the sacred gifts into my infant-like open mouth, so this young man takes my hand and holds it for a moment. God physically touches me with his wound-striped hand. He is the broken tenderness of the crucified Christ finding me a worthy companion. There is no guile, only human touch transfigured into an encounter with the tangible love of God. There are two young men and presence of the Spirit, there is the Word and the Flesh of Christ commingled intimately into our hands but never confused with our flesh.

I draw inspiration from Mother Teresa and her Missionary Sisters of Charity. They became famous for simple acts of mercy among the dying poor. The healing of the poor is not the primary goal, neither is the eradication of the causes of an insufficient social system, nor the restoration of broken families. The body of the man dying alone on the street is the sacred flesh of the crucified Christ. It is commingled with the cross of Christ without being confused with it. An intimate and mystical union between the body of Christ and the bodies of the homeless poor of the third world is recognized and revered. If someone is brought into the merciful care of the sisters and somehow escapes the shadow of death which brooded over him, there is a victory. And if he comes in and breathes his last breath holding the hand of a sister of Jesus, there is victory. The body of Jesus intertwined with that of the poor has been revered, contemplated, touched, as a priest who handles the eucharistic gifts in the liturgy.

Primary to any work among the poor must not be calculable success, counting healings, placements, or converts, but St. John Chrysostom’s question, “Do you wish to honor the body of the Savior?”

In the Eucharist we receive transfigured matter, a spiritual and physical bread at once. We must eat it with our mouth and drink with our lips for Christ’s body to enter in and nourish our heart. As we remain always near the Eucharist we remember that faith is only complete when flesh is spiritualized, transfigured. Faith must be flesh. Word become flesh is the core of our unity as believers as Church and that unity is in a faith where flesh and spirit are one.

“Thinking” about union with God, or about bread and wine is never enough, we must “eat” (see John 6:33). In the context of the liturgy this means Eucharist, and in the “liturgy after the liturgy” it means transfiguring everything we touch, to comprehend in faith, to love our neighbor as the priest handles the Eucharistic gifts. Then we have spirit and life, then the kingdom has come.

Eucharist is the experience of transfigured matter, the Body of Christ and the word of Christ. Though the Eucharist is never watered down or generalized it is the seed of the transfigured creation, of Life which is wholly spiritualized while never losing its weight. The bodies of the poor must be seen through Eucharist. The Eucharist restores our vision. This gift is the restoration, the access into the sacred river which flows just below the surface of all matter and pools in the wounds of the dying poor. Eucharist restores our sight and lets us and breathe the air of the New Creation.

“For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed, he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.”

(John 6:55-56)

Joel Klepac and his wife Monica have been working with local families and street children in Romania since the summer of 2000. Recently they have been developing a family-style boys home for older street boys. Photos of some of Joel’s paintings and poems are posted at: www.wordmadeflesh.com/klepacart0403.htm.

Published in the Spring 2004 issue of In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Copyright by the author.