The priest rises from his wheelchair and balances just so, holding on to a handle added to the back of the wooden altar by a loving congregation.
“How appropriate, holding on to the altar for dear life,” the priest muses. Lifting the bread… “This is my Body, which is given for you.…” Lifting the wine… “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for all people…” comes a Prayer, comes a Fraction, comes a Revelation.
Holding up the Body of Christ amongst the people, and breaking the bread, and parting the broken body, the priest is overwhelmed with the scene before him – as if the Eucharist that he has celebrated for the past 13 years has suddenly became transubstantiated, not in bread and wine, but in the very lives of those standing before him, as well as within himself. An epiphany in early Advent, simply framed by two broken pieces of bread, comes the words, “the gifts of God for the people of God!” – and a moment of clarity. For a tableau unfolds in the midst of people and priest – a wheelchair, a vulnerable priest holding on for dear life to the real presence of the Christ broken, and the gathered people of God – lives he knows so well, lives of wounding and shame, love and hope.
It is here that a Eucharistic theology is revealed through disability, when a priest and a church are embraced by a risen Christ, finding God through mutual dependency. The words “inner wheelchair” echo in the mind of the priest, and at that moment the Word and sacrament proclaim to the ecclesia that we are a community of disability and loved by a disabled God who makes us whole. A risen Christ stands before a people in hiding and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” As we cry, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20)
As Nancy Eiesland writes in her book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, “In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected Savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation. In so doing, this disabled God is also the revealer of a new humanity. The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability. (p. 100)”
“My Lord and my God!” Such are words calling the church to recognize that justice and reconciliation among those living with a disability begin when we recognize the image of God imbedded in each and every human being. It is acknowledging that the very ones who are labeled disabled in this world can become the greatest teachers to the “temporarily- abled” in revealing that we are all beautiful and offer so much to the human experience. And that all are created Imago Dei.
“A new humanity…” Such are words calling us to claim an imperative to utilize the gifts of those living with disabilities, not only in our congregations but also in our entire world. A new humanity that celebrates our vulnerability as the very pathway to God and neighbor. A new humanity that embraces its own inner wheelchair as a pathway to a reconciliation that leads to a liberation into authentic community – a recognition of such deep love for God and neighbor that we are liberated to embrace the “beautiful me and the beautiful you.” For when we embrace what is and acknowledge our own shame, we begin to see our sister and brother in Christ in the broken places and celebrate resurrection hope, as we dare touch their wounds.
It is acknowledging that the very ones who are labeled disabled in this world can become the greatest teachers to the “temporarily- abled” in revealing that we are all beautiful and offer so much to the human experience.
As a spiritual leader living with a visible disability these past nine years, I have discovered the power of vulnerability as a pathway to the other. The liberatory gift of loving what is can invite others with visible and invisible disabilities to find the courage to celebrate who they are, and in turn be a liberating witness to the world. When I embrace my disability as an opportunity to glorify God, I can set others free from the “tyranny of the perfect” into a true jubilee.
A true church of reconciliation is an exemplar of the Kingdom of God willing to become holy listeners, for justice begins when we pay attention and truly see the “other,” just as they are – and call them beloved. As I have rolled along my pilgrim’s way, I have discovered that I have a choice to see my journey as a gift, and in that recognition, let my life speak. All of this began for me when I was embraced one Sunday morning by a Holy Communion and a feast of friends.
The Rev. Joseph Kovitch serves as Priest-in-charge at St. Matthew’s, Westerville.