no altars here
By Fr John Larsen SM
As a younger priest, especially in the Philippines, I delighted in presiding at dynamic celebrations of the Eucharist. The churches are full and overflowing with faith and life. It is a privilege to preside. But for the last six years I have been living in Burma (until the government unceremoniously showed us the door) and in Thailand. In these Buddhist lands, especially in Thailand, there are no invitations to preside at the Eucharist. Most people have rarely met a Christian and have no idea what a priest might be. I’ve had to re-think what the “celebrating the Eucharist” might mean.
I began to reflect seriously about all this a while ago. I was giving a retreat to the Bishop and priests of the Archdiocese of Mandalay in Burma. I asked the Bishop to wash the priests’ feet as part of the retreat. The Bishop, one of the holiest men I’ve ever met, was open to it. The priests were vigorously opposed. They sensed, like Peter before them (“you will never wash my feet” Jn. 13:8), that there was more to this than met the eye. This sort of service modelled a style of leadership that would challenge their lordship over their flocks. In Burma, the only model of leadership they experience in their isolated land is military leadership. It’s complicated by the cultural understanding of the feet of our bodies as being the most ignoble part. The priests would have none of this nonsense.
“(The washing of the feet) is a symbol of service offered among friends who are equal. No strings attached. It is freely given and solely for the good of the other.” From their reaction I began to understand that this idea of ‘service’ is tricky. It requires more reflection.
When I serve someone I am saying to the other person – “while I am serving you, your needs, not mine, are paramount”. Just why would I ever say that? I could serve someone superior to me in expectation of their protection or their reward. Often the service industry here in Thailand sees many people serving their clients in demeaning ways. I see daily, in this Thai/Burma border town of Ranong where I live, Burmese migrant labourers serving their Thai bosses in servitude. This sort of ‘service’ of an inferior to a superior simply perpetrates injustice. Nothing noble about it at all.
Or I can serve someone inferior to me in the expectation that that person will be at my beck and call at a later date. Many parents here seem to care for their many children in the explicit expectation that their children will care for them later on. On an international level, in our part of the world, we see powerful China serving the interests of the despotic regime in ‘little neighbour’ – Burma – in return for permission to rape the land of Burma of its rich natural resources. Here the service of a superior to an inferior simply accentuates an unjust status quo.
So, service can be about building unjust and oppressive structures.
“This line of reflection has helped me re-interpret my understanding of the Eucharist living in a Buddhist land where bread and wine are foreign food.”
But the service in John’s Gospel, the washing of the feet, is something quite radically different. It is a symbol of service offered among friends who are equal. No strings attached. It is freely given and solely for the good of the other. It involves death to oneself. As such, it is a sign of the Reign of God. It is quite revolutionary because it upsets an hierarchical status quo.
Peter was quite right to object, just as he objected in the Synoptic Gospel tradition to Jesus’ proceeding to Jerusalem to suffer and die for his people and he earned the rebuke: “Get behind me Satan!” (Mk. 8:33). This message of serving the other as a friend, being open even to dying for the other and certainly not serving in expectation of any reward, is at the heart of Jesus’ message and it involves a revolution in thinking with no room for compromise. John expresses it by the symbolism of the washing of the feet.
Some church leaders, and not only the priests in Mandalay, have been objecting ever since. Sometimes a few of our leaders have preferred a style of leadership that has been obsequious to superiors and abusive of minors. John’s ‘washing of the feet’ style of leadership cuts through this systemic injustice to create a new world order of service among friends and equals, neither fawning nor imposing.
Our Church has faithfully followed the command of Jesus to take the bread and wine and proclaim them as the body and blood of Christ. This is the profound Tradition in Paul and in the Synoptics. The Eucharist, the bread and wine, is the core symbol at the heart of our faith.
But John’s Gospel also has a Eucharistic Tradition. In the ‘washing of the feet’ John is speaking of service-in-friendship as the Eucharistic sign. The radicality of it is that it breaks down the master-servant structure in society and re-presents service as friendship among equals, putting the other’s interests ahead of our own with no hope of personal gain. This line of reflection has helped me re-interpret my understanding of the Eucharist living in a Buddhist land where bread and wine are foreign food.
It’s true that early every morning our small community gathers to adore the Blessed Sacrament, recite the Morning Prayer and celebrate the Mass together. We need this rich nourishment from our Tradition. Every morning, year after year, the same few faces! But if we decided to stop praying like this tomorrow no-one in the town would be remotely interested.
The sign of the Eucharist that speaks to our Buddhist friends here is our service among friends that John symbolises in the washing of the feet. What our neighbours see here is a small group that calls itself Christian. Some of the group care for the migrant labourers at the last stages of dying with AIDS. No-one is more rejected than a foreign worker dying with AIDS far from home and family. Our quiet, friendly service to them speaks of the Reign of God, even though we never mention the name of Christ.
What our neighbours also see here is a small Christian group that gathers some of the kids together each day and tries to give them some hope by teaching them the basics. These children of Burmese migrant labourers are unwanted by everyone until they reach an age (about 13 years old) when they can sweat it out in the fish factories or on the fishing boats or in the brothels. They have no citizenship and no reason to hope for anything more. If we can serve them in our little classes and as our friends, “wash their feet” as it were, then we are celebrating the Eucharist, John-style, in a language they can understand.
This Eucharistic service among friends breaks down the unjust oppressor-oppressed social structure in our border town. It’s no wonder that Christian missionaries are unwelcome in a despotic military regime like Burma. A radical teaching, like the washing of the feet, the Eucharist as service until death among friends, if implemented, would be the General’s undoing, and they know it.
Now I am here on the Thai-Burma border, the telephone no longer rings asking for Father to come and say Mass as it once did ceaselessly in the Philippines. I loved that life then but now I live in a different type of mission. The telephone still rings. A young Burmese woman with AIDS needs to be taken to the Thai doctor but needs some help to get through the police check-points. Could you come with us? Or, one of our students has been bashed up by her father. Could you put her up for a while?
Our service among our friends here in Thailand, our washing of the feet, is just as Eucharistic as our celebrating many Masses in the Philippines. We’re just following John’s service-symbolism rather than the bread-and-wine symbolism of Paul and the Synoptics. These different Sacraments of the Presence of Christ are both needed. But different times and places call for emphases.
One final reflection: Some of my New Zealand confreres who have visited here have commented that while the religion in this part of the world may be the all-pervasive Buddhism, the religion in New Zealand is secularism. Perhaps we share a common search for how to speak of Christ’s real presence in foreign lands?
Father John Larsen has been a Marist Missionary in Asia for nearly 25 years. For many years he served in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. After that he led a new Marist mission into Burma (Myanmar) but they were denied an entry visa after 18 months. Now they are ministering to Burmese migrant workers in Ranong, Thailand, on the border with Burma.