Wednesday 24 November 2021

Making the effort

The second highest point on the Camino to Santiago brings you to the small village of O Cebreiro. The village is distinctive on what is already an interesting route for its thatched-roof round huts, which look like they may well have been inhabited continuously since the first people settled on top of the hill over two thousand years ago.

But there is more to the village than curious architecture, or even the stunning view of the surrounding countryside at sunrise and sunset. In the parish church, in a small niche to the side of the altar, is a very precious relic: a chalice, stuffed with pieces of linen, is displayed behind a glass screen. The chalice contains the remnants of a Eucharistic miracle that took place in the village in the fourteenth century.

The priest of the village at the time didn’t particularly appreciate his vocation. He was not convinced that the bread and wine at Mass truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, and couldn’t really be held up as a model of pastoral zeal. One day, during a particularly heavy snow storm, which would have made the steep track up to the village completely perilous, the priest rang the church bells before Mass, secretly hoping that no one would turn up and that he needn’t bother saying it.

Much to the priest’s disappointment, a farmer who lived out in the countryside had decided he would not be deterred by a little weather, and made the difficult journey up to the village. The priest began the Mass, furious that he was having to say Mass for this one person. He thought the whole exercise pointless, but Our Lord showed him otherwise. As he spoke the words of consecration over the bread, ‘This is my body,’ he noticed he was no longer holding bread, but a piece of real flesh, with blood dripping onto the linen corporal underneath. The chalice now on display contains the remains of this miracle — a piece of flesh, wrapped in the blood-stained altar linens.

The bishops of England and Wales have decided that it is not yet time to restore the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days. But the farmer of O Cebreiro shows us that if we really believe that Christ himself is present on the altar of every Mass, nothing — snow, steep hills or even pandemics — should stop us from making the effort to be there.

We may not be required in this country to attend Mass on Sundays for the moment. But that gives us an opportunity — an opportunity to show that we attend Mass not because we have to, but because we want to. We make the effort not because someone with authority tells us to, but because we won’t allow anything to stop us from encountering the one we are called to love with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength.

I hope that our faith never grows so weak that Christ feels the need to intervene with a Eucharistic miracle here in Oxford. I hope too that all those who make the effort to attend Mass in our church feel welcome. And you might be reassured to hear that pilgrims to O Cebreiro have been welcomed rather more warmly in recent years by the parish priest, who stands at the entrance to the village congratulating all those who make it up the hill.

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