Twenty-Fourth Sunday: The Poverty of the Cross

If, as the ancients said, Mark is Peter’s writer, then Peter’s profession of faith is central to Mark’s Gospel.

Both Matthew and Mark say that Jesus asked, “Who do people say . . . who do you say that I am?”  Both have Peter answer.  Both then say, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly,” Peter rebukes him, and he says, “Get behind me, Satan”; then he tells the disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  Much of these events is word-for-word the same, even in the narrative (not just because they remember Jesus’ words); one evangelist is using the other’s writing.

File:Christ giving the Keys of Heaven to St. Peter by Peter Paul Rubens - Gemäldegalerie - Berlin - Germany 2017.jpgBut Matthew has a passage Mark does not.  Matthew’s Gospel has, first: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven”; then: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”; and third: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Big verses.

Nineteenth-century liberal Protestant scholars used this difference to discredit the papacy: Mark is primitive, therefore “real” Matthew made all this stuff up.

Now, I believe the Gospels are true, the very foundation of Christianity.  Matthew is Gospel truth.  But it must be said: I heard two homilies this Sunday, and both talked about Peter’s profession while sweeping under the rug all that stuff about the Cross.  Mark is correcting Matthew, in the sense that he doesn’t let us get carried away in triumphalism.

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Mark isn’t so primitive.  He adds little details.  Matthew says they’re going to the “district” of Caesarea Philippi; Mark, with his typical eyewitness details, says this happened in the “villages” of that district.  Matthew just says they were there, Mark points out that it happened on the road.

And Mark adds, when Jesus speaks about the cross, “He said this openly,” and that when he rebuked Peter, he was “looking at the disciples,” including them.  Mark has something to say.

File:Cimabue 012.jpgWhat he has to say is that Peter got it wrong.  Yes, Jesus said those words about Peter’s leadership.  But Mark’s version of the story emphasizes that, though they knew to call Jesus “Christ,” they didn’t know what that meant.  Fine to profess Jesus Lord—do you know that it means the Cross, both for him and for you?

Mark even reorders the final words, about the Son of Man coming in glory.  Matthew announces that it will happen: “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”  Hurrah!

Mark subordinates that coming to Peter’s shame: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  How awful to deny Christ.  And that’s the center of this Gospel.

 

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The first reading is always picked for the Sunday Gospel; here we get Isaiah, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”

The second reading, however, is going through something in order—we’re three weeks into a five-week tour of James—and now we get: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”

Crucified with Christ

First: those two readings match the two statements Jesus makes about being Christ.  First, he has to suffer: “I gave my back.”  To profess Jesus is Lord is to profess him as that Lord, the Suffering Servant.  But then Jesus says we have to bear our own cross: no good to profess him Lord unless we join him.

Second: in Isaiah and that first paragraph after Peter’s profession, he says the Messiah is poor.  He unites himself not to our power, but to our weakness; we ourselves must find him on the Cross, not in earthly splendor.  But in James and that second paragraph, he says that he is for the poor: James’ central image of “works,” throughout the letter, is caring for the poor: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day.”  Jesus says, “whoever loses his life for my sake”: give it all away.

Third, the reason is our faith that God will protect us: In Matthew’s commendation, Jesus says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”  But in both Matthew and Mark, when Peter denies the cross, Jesus says, “You are thinking not as God does, but as man.”

But, “See,” says Isaiah, “the Lord GOD is my help.”  “He is near who upholds my right.”  We can afford to suffer, to be poor and for the poor, because we believe the Lord is strong, and he is with us.

Where do you rebuke the Cross?

Twenty-Third Sunday: Believe in the Resurrection

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus heals the man who is deaf and cannot speak.

We are back into Mark (I am sorry to have missed last week—thirty-six hours down with food poisoning plus being on the road).  Again we have Mark’s curious attention to detail.  Matthew the accountant tells this story in two verses, Luke, with his own bunch of stories to add, tells it in one.  Mark takes six or seven.

File:Healing of Aeneas.jpgOnly Mark gives us the detail that Jesus “put his finger into the man’s hears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned,” just as only Mark will tell us, in the next chapter, about the blind man who at first thinks people look like trees.

Only Mark tells us the Hebrew word Jesus says, “Ephphatha, be opened,” just as only Mark tells us that he said “Talitha cumi, which means, little girl, I say to you, arise.”

Mark is the shortest gospel, but don’t be deceived: Mark isn’t short on details.  And though Matthew and John are ascribed to members of the Twelve, and Luke makes much in his introduction of finding extra stories, Mark seems to have an inside line.  I like the ancient tradition that says Mark was Peter’s scribe, relating Peter’s intimacy.

I don’t mean to waste time on trivia, but I do think it helps us fall in love with the Gospels if we appreciate the special richness of each one.  I have found it helpful in my own Gospel reading to flip back and forth, seeing how the stories differ, to see the special emphasis each evangelist is giving us.

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Helpful, too, to lean into the strange details.  The first verse seems boring: “Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.”

Except that the previous story is about the Syro-Phoenician woman—“yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”—a powerful story about Jesus’ complex love for the people outside Israel.  And Sidon is twenty miles north—deeper into Phoenician territory—than Tyre (and Mark usually says “the region of Tyre and Sidon,” so when he says “the region of Tyre,” he seems to be saying Jesus was in Tyre, not Sidon).  In this one verse, Jesus is going deeper into missionary territory.

So too with Decapolis, which is the opposite, eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, furthest from Sidon and not the western shore of Capernaum, where he spends most of his time.  In fact, the Decapolis, too, is pagan, Greek territory.  These locations—precious details, in Mark’s spare Gospel—speak of Jesus’s mercy.

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Meister von Müstair 002.jpgSo too the physicality of the healing.  Jesus touches the man, puts his fingers in his ears and spits on his tongue.  He groans.  We’re tempted to over-spiritualize Christianity, to say that bodies don’t matter.  Jesus does want to heal our souls; it is lest they subordinate love of God to this world’s gifts that here, again, he “ordered them not to tell anyone”; but Jesus is incarnate, and we look forward to the resurrection of the body.  We pray not to a far-away spirit, but to the Word made flesh.

Funny how this healing works.  “He put his finger into the man’s ears.”  Perhaps it is just to be near them, that would be rich in itself.  But then he says, “Be opened.”  It seems like he plugs the man’s ears himself.  Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Jesus, soon to be crucified, uniting himself to the man’s disability, somehow becoming part of it, so that he himself can release it?  So too his spit shares in the man’s clumsiness of mouth.

One more: the Greek word here for “deaf” is literally “chopped” or “blunted.”  Sometimes in the New Testament it clearly means deaf; sometimes it clearly means unable to speak.  The word here for speech impediment is “difficulty of words.”  Interesting how closely hearing and speech go together.  If we cannot hear, we cannot speak.  Lord, restore my hearing, so I will have something to say.

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File:Masolino, resurrezione di tabita.jpgOur first reading, from Isaiah, has God restoring his creation.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap, the mute sing, the deserts burst forth with streams.  God did not make the physical world so it would end in futility; he made it to end in the resurrection of the body—and in the resurrection of man all creation is resurrected.  He who made it will restore it.

But our reading from James turns this healing to human relationships, indicting those who prefer the rich to the poor.  It seems to me that we in the American Church need to hear these readings; it seems to me Scripture and Tradition speak an awful lot about the poor, and American Catholics are awful quick to shrug that off as irrelevant.  (Walker Percy jokes that we will have a schismatic “American Catholic Church,” with the Latin Mass, “Property Rights Sunday,” and the red white and blue raised at the consecration.  Look out.)

Why do we prefer the rich?  Because we think God cannot heal.  We think we need to stick up for ourselves, and we think those who are weak are useless.  We prefer the rich because we don’t believe in Jesus.

Do you believe in the Resurrection?

Twenty-First Sunday: Everything in the Eucharist

Phew, there’s a lot of mess in the Church right now.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-28-_-_Judas_Receiving_Payment_for_his_Betrayal.jpgThe only answer has to be, not lay review boards, not “transparency,” not blog posts–those things might help, but they aren’t the real solution–but Peter’s words in this Sunday’s gospel: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” And we have to realize that, as at the end of the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, “Many of Jesus’s disciples who [are] listening [say], This saying is hard, who can accept it?” and “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Having once pledged our life to Jesus is not enough.  Having been in the past “a good Catholic” (whatever that means) does not mean we will stay–in fact, the Council of Trent said it is a heresy to believe that no one falls away, and Jesus “knew from the beginning” that some who were following him at the time would later not believe, and even betray him.  The further we follow Jesus, the harder and the more mystifying it will be. We have to turn and turn again, always to accompany, not some favorite public figure or ideology or “culture” (whatever that means), but “him.”

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Our first two readings brilliantly lead us into this dynamic.  Joshua says, “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve. . . . As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  We need to say that every day.

The good news is that “the people answered” by looking back on all the Lord had done for them, and returning to him.  The Psalm response sums that up: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” Why do we follow Jesus? Because he is good, and we have been blessed to taste and see his goodness–and all that tasting and seeing culminates in the Eucharist.

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Ephesians 5 gives us one amazing application.  (I tried to write a separate post on it, but I am on vacation with my family, and even my main Sunday post is getting finished late.)  The reading is a little subtle. We might be tempted to read the Jesus part out and make things really practical: wives are supposed to submit, husbands are supposed to lay down their lives.  Alright, but:

Gaulli Conversion (2006 2 1).jpgSomething that’s been striking me recently about St. Paul is that he always talks about Jesus.  We can talk for hours about Church politics (see above, on “lay review boards,” etc.–but consider any other conversation) without ever uttering the name of Jesus, or even making oblique reference to him.  But once you pay attention to it, it’s amazing, wonderful, how Paul never says anything without talking about Jesus.

Is he talking about marriage, or about Jesus?  Of course he is talking about marriage–but his deeper point is to say, whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord.  Relate everything to Jesus. He’s not just saying, Jesus is one nice example of what self-giving love means–now go and be self-giving.  He’s saying, whenever you think about being a husband, a wife, or anything else, think nothing but Jesus. WWJD is a bit over-simplified compared to Ephesians 5, but it’s on the right track: nothing but Jesus.  “This a great mystery: but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.”

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And so we come to the conclusion of John 6.  Yet again, John is bringing other things into the context of the Eucharist.  In this chapter, he turns the feeding of the 5,000, (then, more subtle, a rereading of the Exodus and what it means to do God’s work and receive his help), “isn’t this the son of the carpenter?”, the Last Supper, and now Peter’s confession of faith–all things in the other three Gospels–and he spins all of them into the context of Eucharistic adoration.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/V%26A_-_Raphael%2C_Christ%27s_Charge_to_Peter_%281515%29.jpgThere is a direction to this narrative.  The miracles proclaim his divinity, “isn’t this the son of the carpenter” proclaims the Incarnation, last week’s section focused directly on the Eucharist–and now we hear what it means to follow him.  All summed up in the Eucharist. We learn who he is, we encounter him in the Eucharist–and he says, whenever we go to Mass or adoration, “Do you also want to leave?” And so the Eucharist is our Fiat, our “Thy will be done,” our embrace of his word and his plan–and his Church, built on Peter’s profession of faith.  When we go to the Eucharist, we say, yes, Lord, I accept the Bible, I accept faith, I embrace my membership in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church–and I embrace the call to think about marriage, and everything else, in terms of, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

And we realize the source of all our strength, our only possibility, is in the Son of God–”We have come to believe and are convinced,” the chapter ends, “that you are the Holy One of God”–the one who ascends and descends, the one who alone unites humanity to the Father.  There is no other way.

Where are you looking for solutions outside the Eucharist?

 

Twentieth Sunday: Craunch

Last week I said John’s Gospel rereads the other Gospels.  In the second part of the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6), we saw John revisiting the “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son” scene, but in a Eucharistic context.  This week, we move on from the Incarnation to the Eucharist itself.

File:The Last Supper - So-called Hours of Philip the Fair (c.1495), f.96v - BL Add MS 17280.jpgThe other three Gospels give us the Last Supper: “This is my Body.  This is my Blood.”  John skips that—we know that.  Instead, at the Last Supper, he gives the washing of the feet and then the great prayers, culminating in the prayer for unity.  He’s showing us the meaning of the Eucharist.

But here in John 6, it’s the reverse.  John knows that we already know about the Last Supper, and about the Mass.  But he wants us to dwell in it.  We have a kind of Scriptural Eucharistic Adoration, a prolonged time of gazing on the mystery we celebrate at Mass.

(Jesus said lots of things, lots of places; there’s no need for the Evangelists to make things up—but they do choose which things to present, to help us understand.)

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File:Die letzte Kommunion des Hl Franziskus von Assisi.jpgMostly, he insists on the insane mystery of it.  On one side are massive statements about the consequences of the Eucharist: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood . . . I will raise him on the last day.”

Those are extraordinary claims.  Resurrection has a special force.  It’s a claim, first, about Jesus himself: to say that he can raise the dead is to assert the highest power in the universe.  And he doesn’t say, “I will ask my Father,” but “I will raise him.”

We’ll see that Jesus has higher things to give than the resurrection of the body—but the body is part of it, and it’s something that prevents us from turning everything into little metaphors.  No, he says this bread contains absolute divine power.

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But the other thing he says is that he is talking about bread.  (It’s not bread: it’s Jesus, who can raise the dead.  But he comes in the form of bread.)

File:Icon 03048 Spas-vinogradar. Vtoraya polovina XVIII v. Ukraina.jpgThere’s a progression of words for “eat.”  There’s the normal eating word, which we’ve seen a lot lately.  But then there’s another one, that we’ve also seen, like cattle.  That comes up again when he says, “My flesh is true food.”  It’s not a vague spiritual word, it’s the coarse word of the crowds gobbling barley loaves: this is eating stuff.

And then there’s the famous “trogon.”  My old Greek dictionary uses the word “craunch” (instead of “crunch”).  I don’t know where that “a” comes from, but I love it.  It’s not a spiritual word.  It says, look, it’s going to be in your mouth, and your teeth are going to hit it, and it’s going to make noise: craunch.

John emphasizes the same thing with dialogue.  “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’  Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh . . . .”  They don’t say, “Oh, what an interesting metaphor,” they’re upset.  And he doesn’t say, “oh, no, you’ve misunderstood, the eating thing is just a metaphor,” he says, “Craunch.”  This Incarnation stuff is serious.

First he says, “you’d better eat [a normal way] or you will have no life.”  Then he says craunch, craunch, craunch.  “Who crunches my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will resurrect him.  My flesh is what you eat, like you gobble barley loaves.”

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The deeper point is “eternal life” and, even deeper, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”  “Remain” might be John’s favorite word.  It too is a Eucharistic adoration word.  Dwell here, stay here, live with me.  “I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me [craunch] will have life because of me.”  I want to be your substance, your very life.  Discover my mystery in the Eucharist.  You don’t get life except by receiving me, in my fleshy breadiness.

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File:Félix-Joseph Barrias - Woman Receiving the Eucharist - Walters 371343.jpgThe other two readings take this crunchy earthiness back to the spiritual.  “Wisdom has . . . dressed her meat, mixed her wine. . . . Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed.”  The Eucharist is the wise meal, and it is the meal that gives us wisdom itself as our food, so we can live by wisdom.

And in Ephesians we read, “live not as foolish persons but as wise. . . . Do not get drunk on wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit”: let the Spirit be your wine.  And as the drunk sing, so you will be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks [eucharisting] always.”  Our drink is not earthly, but spiritual.

And yet it comes through the earthiness of the Incarnation and the Eucharist: through Christ alone.

How do you keep alive the centrality of the Incarnation and the Eucharist, of Christ and Christ alone?

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?

Seventeenth Sunday: Better than Barley Loaves

We now pause from our reading of Mark for five weeks.  In Mark, we have read that Jesus went out to the wilderness with the disciples, and the crowds found them.  Next, Mark will tell us about the feeding of the five thousand.

But John’s Gospel fills in deeper details missing from the other three Gospels.  He tells us about the bread of life discourse that follows the feeding of the five thousand (though on the other side of the lake).  So the Lectionary takes us over to John 6 during August of our year of Mark.

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The first reading tells us that with twenty barley loaves (John will specify that Jesus uses barley loaves, too), Elisha miraculously feeds a hundred people.  The miracles are similar—but the similarity brings out the difference, since Jesus feeds 5,000 with only five barley loaves.

Our reading from Ephesians is on the other side of Jesus.  At first it seems to have nothing to do with the loaves.  In fact, like John, it points us beyond.  The crowds search for loaves; Paul is “a prisoner for the Lord.”  He urges us “to live in a manner worthy of the call,” which means humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, love.  The food Jesus offers is not bread but love.

And so he calls us to “the bond of peace.”  Of course it’s silly when people pretend the feeding of the five thousand is just about sharing; such naturalism is precisely the opposite of what the Gospels are asserting.  But the grain of truth in it is that the Church is united, as Paul says elsewhere, by the one loaf.  Through the Eucharistic bread we receive the “one Spirit,” who is “the one hope of your call . . . over all and though all and in all.”  The Eucharistic Jesus is the bond of peace.

***

John takes us through the transition from bread to Ephesians.

The humor begins when Philip says, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”  Two hundred is precise but bizarre.  Five thousand divided by two hundred is twenty five; a day’s wage for a laborer obviously can’t feed twenty-five families, not even “a little.”  Perhaps John is pointing out how stupid our earthly calculations are.

There is a boy—I don’t know why our translation doesn’t tell us he is a “little boy”—with five barley loaves and two fish.  My dictionary tells me Middle Eastern loaves are traditionally about seven inches across and less than an inch thick.  It’s not a lot of bread for people who have been hiking—small enough for a little boy to hold, maybe enough food for his family.

Worldly poverty

John gives us two details missing from the other Gospels.  He tells us they are “barley loaves,” not the wheat loaves that are sometimes required for Temple worship (because they’re nicer) and that Jesus seems to use to feed the disciples on the beach at the end of John’s Gospel.  In Revelation, a hawker calls “a measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny”: this is the cheap stuff.

But the word for fish he uses is not the ordinary ichtus, as in the other Gospels, but a word that means “relish”—which for them usually meant some sort of fish paste.  The fish isn’t more food, it’s a condiment.  In short, this is the food of poor people.

So too they sit on the grass, and the word John uses isn’t the normal word for eating (there’s been a lot of eating in the Gospels lately), but one used for cattle.

Their existence is barely human, or at least very poor: chasing after cheap bread, lying on the ground, eating their fill, stupidly calculating how much they have.

Jesus tells them to gather the left overs “so that nothing will be wasted.”  I guess that’s nice—but it’s not like they’ll go hungry without the leftovers.

***

Two interpretations:

Holy Poverty

First, they want to make Jesus their king because they have bread.  In a couple verses, Jesus will say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.   Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”  We need to move from Elisha to Ephesians, to seek higher things.  Jesus doesn’t want to be our bread savior, he wants to fill our hearts with love.  The Eucharist doesn’t satisfy our bellies, it fills us with the love of God.

Second: he is recreating the Exodus: out in the wilderness, receiving bread from heaven, all the way down to “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning” (Ex 16:19).  Jesus is going to talk about that, too: how he is perfecting the work of Moses, by leading us from the bodily exodus out of bodily slavery with bodily food to the perfect liberation, and perfect thanksgiving, of the kingdom of heaven.

In what ways do you beg barley loaves when Jesus wants to fill you with greater things?

Sixteenth Sunday: Out and Back

In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Apostles return from their apostolate, and Jesus provides for them.

The text of the Gospels is bottomless.  On the surface, they come back from their journeys, and he says, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile.”  That makes sense and is, obviously, endless richness for prayer.  But as we ourselves come away into this deserted place of Scripture, we find Jesus saying and doing more.

The opening words have too much, I’ll only point toward their richness.  “The apostles gathered together.”  But “gathered together” is “synagogued,” that’s just the Greek word.  Jesus has been going through the synagogues teaching, and when he sends them out to continue that mission, they come back and synagogue with him.  It’s both ironic, because perhaps they should be in other synagogues—and wonderful, because they know that Jesus is the true synagogue.

Apo- means away, and “apostles” means “sent out,” though before “sent” the root seems to mean “set”: they are “sent out” because they are “set apart.”  So again, there’s a double irony.  First: when he sets them “apart,” they come “together.”  Second: the Greek word for synagogue starts with the idea of movement, being “led” together, but ends in stability, being “set” together—while “apostles” starts with the idea of being “set” and ends in the movement of being “sent.”

I don’t want to make this too complicated.  Let me just say two things.  In general, there is always more in the text, the Gospel is worth pressing into.  And in this particular, there’s a wonderful dynamic relationship between going out, being sent by Jesus, and coming back together with him, a circular movement out and back, over and over.  That’s the life of the apostle, missionary disciple.

***

And that’s the theme of the rest of the Gospel.  Ironically, they go away to a deserted place to rest—and when they get there, a huge crowd is waiting.

Sosthenes, Apollo, Cephas, Tychicus, Epaphroditus, Cæsar and Onesiphorus of 70 disciples (Menologion of Basil II).jpgWith his splendid humor, Mark underlines the irony.  He gives the quaint detail that before they left, the apostles “had no opportunity even to eat,” because of the crowds.  But what happens immediately after our Sunday reading ends is that Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”  The Apostles think they don’t have enough; they are going away to the desert place to get some time for themselves—and Jesus turns it upside down, and makes the desert place the place where they will have to provide, not by resting but by relying on him (as they serve a huge meal: hard work).  Out and back, synagoging and apostling.

Even funnier: Mark says “they went off in the boat.”  Then he adds the detail that the crowds “hastened there on foot . . . and arrived at the place before them.”  After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus is going to walk on water.  But almost a more awesome miracle is that the crowds walk on land faster than the boat can go on water.  Before the miracle of Jesus providing bread comes the miracle of Jesus providing hungry mouths to feed.  The desert place is not the place of recharging, it’s the place of harder work—but more divine work.  Out and back, synagoging and apostling.

And it is all rooted in the heart of Jesus: “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them.”  (“Heart was moved with pity” is a Greek word that means “spleen” or “bowels.”  It’s more visceral than our romantic “heart”: his stomach churns for them—a nice line for hungry crowds.)  When we rest our heads on the heart of Jesus, when we go to his desert place, more than crowds, we discover his hunger and thirst for the crowds, his infinite love.

***

The other readings are also worth more words than I can give them.

File:St Petrus und Paulu Bellenberg - Kanzeltürbild Jesus als Guter Hirte.JPGIn our Gospel, Jesus says “sheep without a shepherd”—and Jeremiah blames shepherds “who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.”  There’s a lovely ambivalence in Jeremiah’s prophecy: “I will appoint shepherds,” the Lord says, he will send apostles.  But “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock,” he will send one shepherd, a king.  Out and back: the shepherds who stand on their own are bad shepherds.  Only Jesus is the good shepherd: and those who synagogue and apostle with him, who lay their heads on his heart and are filled with his stomach-churning love.

In Ephesians, Paul’s words about the Law are harsh: “abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims.”  (Worse: “legal claims” is in Greek literally “dogmas.”)  Now, Paul is the last one to abolish right doctrine or morals.  But he does say we must go deeper.  Our “peace,” our “reconciliation,” our coming “near” are not by signing up for divisive party lines, but being drawn by “the blood of Christ” and becoming “one new person” with him, finding “access in one Spirit to the Father.”  The only Christian doctrine and morals are the ones always rooted in union with Christ.

True union with Christ fills us with a hunger that leads us back out to his apostolic work in the world.

Do you ever have false union, prayer that doesn’t lead you back?

Fifteenth Sunday: Against Clericalism

AM 7:12-15, PS 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14, EPH 1:3-14, MK 6:7-13

Clericalism turns everything inside out.  It seems to take ministry seriously, but it is like an inversion of ministry—whether the ministry of the Word or of sacraments—where people value the wrong authority.

Our Gospel reading this Sunday is about the Apostles—the original clerics.  The Lectionary warms to the theme with the prophet Amos.  Just before our reading, “Amaziah, priest of Bethel”—someone with status—has just told the king, “Amos has conspired against you.”  Now he says to Amos, “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah.  There earn your bread by prophesying.”  Amaziah thinks of the ministry of the Word as a kind of careerism, full of plots and earnings.

Amos says, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.  The Lord took me from following the flock.”  I am nobody.  My authority is from the Lord, and I speak only his word.  Between Amos’s and Amaziah’s views of the prophet is all the heresy of clericalism.

***

Our Epistle is the opening hymn from Ephesians, one of the richest hymns in Scripture, far too much for my limited space here.  The riches God offers us in Christ are superlative: “Every spiritual blessing in the heavens,” “Holy and without blemish” (Latin, immaculati—what we believe about Mary is just a statement of the power of grace in all of us), “Adoption in love,” “Forgiveness,” “Riches of his grace lavished upon us,” “All wisdom and insight,” “Knowing the mystery of his purpose,” “Sealed with the Spirit,” “Redemption,” “God’s possession.”

But it is all in Christ: “To sum up all things in Christ,” “            Blessed us in Christ,” “chose us” in him, “adoption through Jesus,” “in his beloved,” “Redemption by his blood,” “the favor set forth in him.”  What we believe about Christ and what we believe about grace go hand in hand: if we believe he is awesome, we believe he can do great things for us; if we lose sight of him, we lose sight of grace.

And thus we are, “Who first hoped in Christ,” “Heard the gospel of salvation,” “believed in him.”  And above all, “for the praise of the glory of his grace”—my wife has been reading the amazing Carmelite mystic St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, who wanted the Latin for this phrase to be her name: laudem gloriae, the praise of his glory.  Let me be nothing else.

Clericalism is instead the praise of our own glory.  Ironically, many of our alternative strategies for great parishes—from focusing on ushers to clever homilies, etc.—just shifts to a clericalization, and clericalism-ization, of the laity, replacing the praise of his glory with constant self-reference.

***

As always, it comes to a head in the Gospel.  Jesus sends them out two by two.  On the one hand, he gives them high spiritual authority—“authority over unclean spirits.”  On the other hand, right at the start, “two by two” keeps them humble, as if they need a chaperone.

Their packing list is funny.  “Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick”: going to be doing a lot of walking.  “No food, no sack, no money in their belts.  They were, however, to wear sandals.”  Gonna need those sandals, you’ll be doing a lot of walking.  “But not a second tunic.”

They are sent.  It’s not that there are no clerics, or that there is no work for them to do.  The Apostles are given authority and they are expected to use it—expected to hit the road and walk hard.

But they are also expected to rely entirely on God.  This isn’t about their great strategies, it isn’t about their material or social or intellectual wealth.  To take the sandals and walking stick but no money is both to make a radical act of trust that Jesus will provide, and to accept an awesome responsibility to bring Jesus to others.

(The Lectionary is going to skip it, but the next story in Mark’s Gospel is Herod thinking John the Baptist has risen from the dead: despite the Apostles going two by two, everyone knows it is One whom they represent.)

“Shake the dust off your feet.”  Matthew adds a threat—“It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah”—but Mark keeps it simple.  If they don’t hear you, move on, leave them behind and go.

And they go, preaching repentance, driving out demons, anointing with oil (a first sacramental representation of Christ’s power and authority, delegated to them), curing the sick.  Christ is powerful, and he works in them, works only he can do.  But only when, like Amos, they renounce their own credentials and become nothing but the praise of the glory of his grace.

How are you over-complicating the ministry Christ has given you?

Fourteenth Sunday – Power in Weakness

EZ 2:2-5, PS 123:1-2, 2, 3-4, 2 COR 12:7-10, MK 6:1-6

The theme of our readings this Sunday is “power made perfect in weakness.”  That is the heart of true devotion to Mary.

The Yaroslavi Virgin With Child (15th century, Tretyakov).jpgNow it must be said at the beginning, Scripture is not setting out to lead us to Mary, but to Jesus—and in fact, true Marian devotion leads us always past Mary to Jesus.

Our Gospel has Jesus’s neighbors saying, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?”  The Gospel’s aim is not to teach us about the perpetual virginity of Mary—in fact, though her perpetual virginity is important, it is not the central thing we need to know about her.

(That said, we read elsewhere about “Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses” (Mt 15:40): half the women in the Gospel seem to be named Mary, but here it appears that James and Joses, the names of Jesus’ first two “brothers,” are children of a woman not identified as the mother of Jesus.  Paul refers to “James the Lord’s brother”: one of the apostles, the James who is not the brother of John but is called “son of Alphaeus,” and who became head of the Church in Jerusalem, was known by his blood relation to Jesus.  But the author of “Jude” (i.e., Judas, the third of the brothers in Mark’s list) calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1), but John’s Gospel seems to refer to the same one of the Twelve as “Judas (not Iscariot)” (Jn 14:22).  Well, the point is, there are a lot of relationships here, and all we can conclude is that it’s not clear who is literally brother to whom.)

The real point is contained in the first line: “Is he not the carpenter?”  The claim they are making is not that Mary has other children.  The claim is that Jesus is one of them, truly man.  God can’t be man!

***

Revers Poganovo Icon.JPG

Ezekiel’s vision

Our first reading is the opening of Ezekiel.  In chapter one he sees a vision of God’s glory.  Now he is sent to the Israelites, “rebels who have rebelled against me,” in their exile in Babylon.  We see that God’s people often resist his word.  And that he continues to pursue them.  Man is sinful; God seeks out man.

So too, Paul is given “a thorn in the flesh.”  We don’t know what that thorn was: it could be a temptation, a physical malady, maybe an annoying member of his Church.  It doesn’t matter.  God wants to show him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  “When I am weak, then I am strong”—because Christ is my strength.

***

That’s the point of our Gospel.  Jesus is power in weakness, God in man.  We tend to separate them, as if the choice is between Ezekiel’s divine majesty or his fallen Israel.  But Jesus is both.

The Gospel has some nice touches.  They say, “What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter?”  A carpenter, of course, works with his hands, to do humble things.  “We know those hands!”  God cannot be in those human hands.

But God is—and the end of the reading says, “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.”  A funny line: he couldn’t, except that he did?  Part of the point, at least, is not that he couldn’t do mighty deeds—but that he only did them through those hands.  They reject the humanity of God—and he acts only through it.  Just as Ezekiel’s rebellious house cannot believe that the mighty God comes through such a miserable little prophet.

Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.”  We learned last week that Jesus can feel power going out of him, and the other thing the locals cannot believe is his lack of wisdom—so it’s odd that he would be surprised at their lack of faith.  Not much surprises Jesus.

Testa di Cristo redentore.jpgInteresting, though: it also says, “Many who heard him were astonished.”  It isn’t the same word.  That word means something like, “hit with a hammer,” dumbstruck.  The word for Jesus is literally about wonder, about pondering, studying, gazing.  And I don’t want to make too much of a preposition, but Mark doesn’t use the normal preposition for this verb here: Jesus marvels “through” their lack of faith.  He sees right through them, understands them.  He isn’t dumbstruck, he’s wise.

***

All of this is the true meaning of Mary.  We look to Mary to be dumbstruck that God could become man.  We turn their words inside out, and ourselves marvel: “What kind of wisdom has been given him?  What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary”—and one of us?

The point of Mary is not that she’s so awesome.  The point is that she is so small, so weak, she lets us see in Jesus Christ the strength of God pouring through human weakness.  God became a baby.  And then, by becoming weak, he made us strong: the Mother of God is holy, because she is full of grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Where do you find yourself thinking you need to make up for God’s weakness?