April 19, 2012

Anna Adams: Self-care as Christ-care

By Anna Adams Petrin

Assistant professor, Wesley Theological Seminary

The notion of self-care smacks of overindulgence for a people trained to serve. But a look at the Eucharist suggests otherwise.

St. Augustine, preaching on the mystery of the newly baptized, said, “At communion, the priest says, ‘the Body of Christ’ and you reply ‘Amen.’ When you say ‘Amen,’ you are saying yes to what you are.”

All that’s lovely, theologically speaking. Then I take a look at myself and find I’m not all that impressed with what I see: Self-care hasn’t been too high on the priority list, reflecting yet another breach between my nosebleed high theology and the practical habits of my life.

I was reminded of this during exams at Notre Dame last semester. Fighting off sickness, I dumped my depleted body into a pew at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, only partially prepared for participating in the liturgy. I let the Mass carry me along, as I battled a fatigued mind and empty stomach. Then I realized, much to my dismay, there would be a Eucharistic procession to wait through before I could return to the library.

I mentally hurried the celebrant along, but he didn’t seem particularly rushed. He painstakingly donned the humeral veil, slowly lifted the host and processed it around the basilica before ever-so-carefully placing it into an ornate monstrance. As he finally reached the rear altar and lifted the monstrance, releasing me to a quick departure, I thought bitterly, “too bad my body of Christ never gets love like that.”

Then the thought hit me: I may genuflect to the body of Christ present in the bread and wine, yet I deprive the very body receiving Christ of sleep, food, medicine, rest and care, all under the auspices of faithfulness to God’s call.

I fear I’m not alone. The notion of self-care can smack of overindulgence and is hard to swallow for clergy — a people trained to serve. But when we look at the Eucharist’s care for Christ’s body on the altar, we cannot escape the call to care for Christ in us. And lest we get a God complex, we might start by holding before ourselves the glorious Jesus of John’s Gospel — in all his sleeping, eating, weeping humanity.

Perhaps we would do better to hold ourselves accountable to Christ-care: the cultivation of the image of Christ in our bodies. As a people who ingest and bear forth Christ eucharistically, we live on the cutting edge of humanity’s transformation into that same sleeping, eating, weeping, now glorified, nature.

By now most attempts at New Year’s resolutions full of false hopes for self-improvement have probably failed. I’m afraid the temptation to quit and return to the easier, if somewhat warped and undisciplined, service of God’s people might prove too enticing.

Instead, as we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ resurrection, in whom God’s pleasure rests, pray for a renewed covenant of caring for Christ in us. In the giving and receiving of body and blood, pray for eyes to see there a reflection of Christ maturing in our own bodies and the bodies of our brothers and sisters.

And when we utter the “great amen” at the conclusion of the Great Thanksgiving, perhaps our theology of real presence will transform into an embodied theology, and we’ll see anew “our own mystery which is placed upon the Lord’s table.”

Editor’s note: A version of this appeared at Oblation, the online journal of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Liturgy.

By Anna Adams Petrin

Assistant professor, Wesley Theological Seminary

Anna Adams Petrin is an assistant professor of worship at Wesley Theological Seminary and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. In addition to teaching courses in worship, she serves as Wesley Theological Seminary’s chapel elder. As a scholar who specializes in the history and practice of Christian worship, Petrin’s research and teaching interests include liturgical studies, spirituality and ecumenism. Petrin earned a M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.