Nineteenth Sunday: Bread of Life

We continue with the Bread of Life discourse from John 6.

Ferdinand Bol - Elijah Fed by an Angel - WGA2360.jpgIn the first reading, Elijah is out of strength.  But the Lord gives him bread from heaven, and then he can walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God.  “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

But the New Testament always transforms the bodily things of the Old Testament into spiritual, or rather, moral things.  Our reading from Ephesians tells us we have been sealed with “the Holy Spirit of God” “for the day of redemption,” and therefore should put away “all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting,” etc., and “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving . . . as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

We always say the journey is too long for us, we don’t have the strength to be like Christ.  And that’s true!  But he gives himself to us—“handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God”—so that, by receiving him as our bread, we can take on his way of life.  Only because we are fed with the bread of heaven.

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John’s Gospel rearranges things to give us deeper theological perspective.  For example, in a couple weeks we will read his version of Peter’s proclamation; in the other Gospels, Peter just proclaims him Lord, but John puts it in the context of the Eucharist.

So too this week we read how John incorporates the line, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?”  He puts that into the context of the Eucharist, too.  “The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven,’ and they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?  Do we not know his father and mother?’”

John is attentive, first, to the Incarnation.  His Gospel begins, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  So too here, first, he brings us to the clash of how he can be “son of Joseph,” member of their community, and also say, “I have come down from heaven.”  In fact, he pauses for much of our reading today, steps away from the Bread, and just talks about the Incarnation.

Jesus says a funny thing, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.”  You’d expect it to be the other way around: “everyone who listens to me comes to my Father.”  But John picks which of Jesus’s words to use to emphasize his divinity.  No one comes to the Father except through him—and so the Father always draws us through Jesus.

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This is the way of the Incarnation.  Our first two readings help us understand.  On the one hand, we need to love God with a strength beyond our own, to reach to him with the Spirit of God.  Because of sin, I don’t love God all that much.  Even without sin, I could never know him the way he wants me to know him.  He wants to give us way more than our human nature can reach.  That is the work of God.

But he always gives it to us—in our way, according to our nature: that is the work of man, of Jesus Incarnate.  That’s why I corrected myself above: I call this web site “The Catholic Spiritual Life,” but a great Thomistic author says, we don’t have a spiritual life, we have a Christian life.  We can’t love God in some disembodied way, as if we were pure spirits.  That wouldn’t be us loving God, and thus it wouldn’t be true love.  So our reading from Ephesians talks about all those very practical things: not grumbling, being compassionate, etc.  There is no other way to love God.

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Христос у точилі. Кінець 17 ст.jpgEphesians talks too about Jesus becoming “a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.”  On the one hand, Jesus teaches us—and enables us—to love God in a human way.  His sacrifice is not in the Temple but on the Cross.  It is the sacrifice of pure human love—or rather, of God loving through human flesh.  Paul stretches the language of “sacrifice” by taking that Temple language and applying it to ordinary life.

But on the other hand, Jesus also gives us a Temple activity.  He becomes bread so that we can offer him, his flesh, on the altar.  We eat that flesh, we become that flesh, we take it into our flesh and make it flesh in our ordinary lives—but we also offer that flesh on the altar as our sacrifice.  Jesus unites communion and sacrifice, God and man, worship and ordinary life, love of God and love of neighbor, bread and flesh and God.

And so he becomes “the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. . . . And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

How could your life be more Eucharistic?

Eighteenth Sunday: The Sign of the Eucharist

Last week we heard the John 6 version of the feeding of the five thousand.  Now we begin four weeks in the all-important Bread of Life discourse.

File:Ulm Hostienmühlenretabel.jpgThe first two readings just give us the background.  In Exodus we have the story of “the grumbling of the Israelites,” to which God responds, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”  Our Psalm response (always a summary of our Prophet) says, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.”  Jesus will tell us the “true bread from heaven.”

But in Ephesians, St. Paul says, “You should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds.”  In Ephesians, he speaks to a Greek, non-Jewish audience, so he adds, “no linger live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.”  But he might say the same about the Israelites in Exodus: grumbling for material bread.  That is not eternal life.

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The key word in our part of the Bread of Life discourse is “signs”: “Amen, amen, I say to you” (means something important is coming) “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”

Vézelay Nef Chapiteau 220608 O7.jpgA sign is something that points beyond itself.  The point of miracles (the root, mira-, means look, wonder, be amazed) is not to get us a Mercedes-Benz, but to get us to think, to look beyond, and behind, the miracle.  The crowd recognizes this when they say, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?”  Funny, though, because they followed him to the wilderness because he was curing the sick, and then followed him to Capernaum because he multiplied the loaves, and they’re still looking for some miracle to testify to who he is.  (Our translation says, “believe in you,” but it might be better to say, “believe you,” as you testify about Another.)

Jesus says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”  The Eucharistic bread itself is a sign, in two ways.  On the one hand, it is a new bread: not the food that perishes; as he said in Ephesians, “put away the old self, corrupted through deceitful desires.”  The Eucharist means turning from a focus on earthly bread to a focus on heavenly bread.  The bread turns into Jesus; no earthly bread is left, only Jesus.

But it’s also true that Jesus turns into bread, he comes to us as bread, he gives himself to us under the sign of bread.  There’s an important article in the Summa that I like to summarize as: If Jesus appears to you in person, or if the Eucharist turns into a child, don’t eat him!  We eat the Eucharist because there Jesus has appeared to us in a different form, he comes to us as bread.

File:Giusto di Gand (Joos van Wassenhove), istituzione dell'eucarestia 2.jpgWhy bread?  Because bread is a sign of the spiritual work he is doing.  “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  The Eucharist is a sign of Jesus as life-giving.  In it he fulfills our true desires: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”  The Eucharist does not mean that we will never experience physical hunger again; that isn’t the promise.  But it does mean that Jesus fulfills our deeper desires, our deeper thirst—our hunger and thirst for righteousness, as the Beatitudes say, or our thirst for the living God, as the Psalms say.  Our physical hunger is a sign of a deeper hunger, a deeper need, and in the Eucharist Jesus comes to us under the appearances of bread, as a sign that he fulfills that hunger.

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Jesus says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”  They ask, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”  Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”  The word for work here is the work for “labor.”  In the physical life, bread gives us strength to labor, and we labor to receive bread.  In the spiritual life, Jesus gives us strength to work, and we work to receive Jesus: he is the bread of life.

File:Eucharisty with bread (1420s, Sergiev Posad).jpgBut the work is precisely to see the signs: “That you believe in the one he sent.”  Jesus is the way to the Father.  He is sent from the Father, and he comes to bring us to the Father.  What we are meant to do in the Eucharist is to follow the signs, to know Jesus as our strength, the one who gives us life, and our deepest hunger.

True “participation” in the Mass is precisely this awareness of the signs.  To eat the Eucharist without hunger, without longing for what Jesus gives us, is no salvation at all.  But to see the signs, to live by them, is to enter through the Eucharist into the life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How do you keep your awareness of the Eucharist alive?