Real Presence in the body and blood of a diverse humanity: a homily

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Readings: An excerpt from This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley; 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 (CCL); John 6:48, 51 + Matthew 10:5a, 16, 26–31 (CCL)

Yesterday, we took our daughter to see Beauty and the Beast at Beef & Boards as a present for her 9th birthday. It was a fantastic production! I was struck by how good it felt to be swept away again with the awe and laughter that is unique to the theater. Life has felt so serious for so long. I marveled at the extraordinary things people are able to do when we work together and share our talents.

I also gleefully noticed the young Black girls in attendance posing with joy in front of the entryway billboard. Those little princesses looked just like Belle! Not just because of their matching dresses, but because the headlining actress looked just like them down to the color of their skin. Most of us know the power of seeing ourselves reflected in places where we are used to being absent, so it made me smile. Just consider how powerful it was the first time you saw a woman preside at Mass. (If you haven’t, you can find a womanpriest led community here.)

We might like to believe that Disney is universal, skin color doesn’t matter, and even if the person cast as Belle had resembled the white girl with brown hair of my childhood, she’s for everyone. But if we don’t see color, we skip through processing how Black characters achieving iconic roles break glass ceilings of representation for an entire population and dismiss Black joy. We don’t quite know how to engage the conversation as white folk. Because, let’s face it, we’re often conditioned to not talk about race unless we’re of the brand of people who are loud with their racism.

The reality is, no matter what our race, gender, or ethnicity may be, it matters to see ourselves represented in literature, in art, in music and theater, STEM careers, religion, and more. We are living in a time where minority representation is catching up, and sadly, outrage is everywhere.

When Disney cast Halle Bailey as Ariel in the Little Mermaid, the opening trailer on YouTube drew over 2 Million dislikes and innumerable offensive comments — so awful that Disney had to shut the dislike counter and comments down. Somehow, casting a Black lead character “ruined” the film — much like women priests are ruining the Catholic church.

The stories of Belle and Ariel didn’t change. But who was allowed to look like them and share their talents did. And, it matters.

And I think it’s important that we talk about it. Because at the root of a lot of today’s violence are graven images of God — images that some people in power will fight to protect, just as the Catholic church has fought to keep God’s image male despite examples throughout creation, human experience, and the Bible that illuminate a God who is so much more than he/him pronouns.

I love how Cole Arthur Riley challenges patriarchal perspectives on the body & blood of Christ in our first reading today. Her memoir, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us, traverses her life experiences and sense of self as a Black, queer woman who lives with a debilitating autoimmune disease and revels in the discovery of the divine in her own enfleshed existence — and ours.

It begs the question: who is God for us?

This is a big question with answers as vast and varied as God’s own humanity, but for a huge population of Christians, God is reduced to Sistine chapel art — a white man with a beard in the sky who grants wishes to those who are good and faithful and condemns those who are wicked. And it doesn’t stop there, because for centuries, the standard measurements of what is holy and sinful have been decided for Roman Catholics and American Christians by cis-men in self-appointed high places who have been predominantly white, Eurocentric, and homophobic.

As a Catholic community that values inclusion, we understand how harmful it is for our church to perpetuate the idea of God as all-male. Half the human population is female, and yet the cult of whitemalegod upholds a social model of female submission to male authority and enforces it with medieval ideas of a patriarchal cosmic structure that too many men of the cloth feel bound to uphold. (Sigh.)

It’s also harmful to have a God who has long been portrayed like a snowy white Santa Claus (no offense to the jolliest elf in the room here).

Just as we behold a shared sense of God beyond the guise of gender hierarchy, authors like Cole Arthur Riley invite us to imagine God beyond white assumptions, overtly inclusive of all skin shades.

She, as a Black woman, boldly proclaims, “My face is my soul is my blood is my glory. When we neglect the physical, it inevitably suffocates the image of a God who ate, slept, cried, bled, grew, and healed. . . . I want a faith that loves the whole of me.” Amen.

It’s not just the idea of God that she invites us to explore, but the contours of God’s presence in the body and blood within and among us. Broken and outpoured for All, God’s living presence flows among us, manifesting in ways seen and unseen.

It hurts to grow up and participate in Christian communities where group-think says it is too taboo for God to be proudly, authoritatively, holy in us if we are female, LGBTQ+, Black, Brown, Indigenous, Disabled, or otherwise othered from the dominant perception of “human perfection,” which for centuries has been male and white. People of color are marginalized by the dominant Christian presumption of white God, just as people of all genders suffer from the forced image of an authoritative male God.

Liberation is happening! Black poets and theologians like Cole are putting skin on a Black God that historically marginalized Christians can find and love themselves in. She authors a site called Black Liturgies that is rich with prayer for a loving, inclusive church that cherishes Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ people. Her memoir is exquisite. And it pairs well with Christena Cleveland’s God is a Black Woman. WOW, that pilgrimage packs a punch. There are less than 5 books in my life I have ever reread cover-to-cover, and this is one of them. Christena discovers strength, faith, joy, God, and herself in her pilgrimage to visit Black Madonnas, and she also reveals the pain and danger of being immersed as a Black woman in a whitemalegod world. She writes:

“This is the God I was instructed to trust, but no matter how hard I tried to convince my mind that this God was with me, my Black female body told me he was not. In fact, my Black female body told me to be afraid, be very very afraid.”

Of the hundreds of quotes I could have chosen, I’m including this one because I think it’s important for us to reflect on the pain of exclusion that we, as white congregations, can have when we are not mindful of the image of God that we hold and cultivate for ourselves. When we don’t learn to navigate the discomfort of talking about race and learning how to truly love people who have been afflicted by our dominant culture.

To be inclusive, we do not have to have a multiracial congregation — though that would be lovely one day. But we do have to question how our images of God might need to grow beyond the limits of our heritage. We need to continue to incorporate diverse voices in our liturgies. Not to appropriate them, but restore their voices to the fabric of our Catholic community and allow ourselves to be challenged and changed by their truths.

When we take time to listen to the voices and stories and experiences of groups beyond our own, we can discover more facets of Christ’s incredible presence, body and blood, among us. If we all see heroes in every color of the human rainbow, we will begin to see God that way, too.

What do you think?

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Angela Nevitt Meyer
Brownsburg Inclusive Catholic Community

Catholic priest (RCWP) all about Love & Belonging | Reproductive Dignity | 🌈 | Evolving Church | Healing Work | She/her