James Hannington and his Companions, Martyrs
The Holy Eucharist is one of those things that human beings do that has multiple layers of meaning. Actually, it may very well be the most complex thing that people do—it is virtually unfathomable. There is no one way to think about or to “do” the Eucharist that conveys every single level of significance. The Holy Communion can be celebrated in a mighty cathedral with a brilliant corona of artistic and ceremonial embellishment. Or it can be celebrated on a beach around a campfire. It’s a table for convivial celebration; it’s an altar of holy sacrifice…. Probably best to be open to the sheer multiplicity of meanings and not limit ourselves by becoming overly attached to one way of doing things.
The feasts and commemorations of martyrs give us an opportunity to contemplate certain dimensions of the Eucharist. Yesterday we celebrated Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles and Martyrs. Today we commemorate Bp. James Hannington and his Companions, killed in Uganda by emissaries of King Mwanga of Uganda on this day in 1885.
It wasn’t so long ago that we tended to think of the martyrs in terms of Roman amphitheaters and wild beasts or the swords of “savages” in far-flung places of the globe. Who knew that today we would be in a new age of martyrs? Now our mental images (and actual images) of martyrs are likely to include beheadings on a beach in Libya, or gunnings down in Iraq—by people who speak modern languages, even English.
In the Mass we lift up the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood, believing him to be truly present in the elements of bread and wine. When we lift up the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, we also lift up the broken bodies and spilled blood of the martyrs of our time. In a sacramental sense, we lift up all of Christ’s Body, past, present and future, martyred or not.
But the bodies and blood of today’s martyrs call out to us with a special poignancy in the Eucharist. We hear their voices in the words we use of another African bishop [Augustine] when the Body and Blood are lifted up: “Behold what you are! May we become what we receive.”
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