Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Leaven of the Spirit

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KNGS 19:4-8; PS 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; EPH 4:30-5:2; JN 6:41-51

There are four key moments in the Eucharistic Prayer (the anaphora).  Of course there is the Institution Narrative: “This is my Body.”  Immediately after is the anamnesis, the offering prayer: “as we celebrate the memorial . . .” (by looking back in the Institution Narrative) “we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty . . . this pure victim.”  And there is finally the Doxology: “through him, with him, in him . . . .”

But our readings this Sunday – more from Ephesians, and the third of our five readings from John 6 – point us to the first key moment of the anaphora, the epiclesis: “make it spiritual” or “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit.”

In the West, we use unleavened bread for the Eucharist, better to memorialize the Last Supper, at Passover.  But in the East, as probably for the first millennium in the West (so St. Thomas reports), they use leavened bread, to signify the presence of the Holy Spirit – leavening, as it were, the unleavened bread of the Old Testament.

A good Eucharistic theology keeps together all four key moments, so we needn’t take sides on which of these is better.  But today, let us think about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist.

***

The reading from 1 Kings is a beautiful Elijah story.  Elijah is dying of hunger in the wilderness.  (Are we not?)  An angel says, “Get up and eat,” and offers him bread.  “Get up and eat,” he repeats, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you. . . . Then he went in the strength of that food.”

Bread signifies strength, basic nourishment.  In the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit “leavens” the ordinary bread, and gives it the new strength, strength of the Spirit.

***

John’s Gospel often seems like a commentary, a reworking, of the other Gospels, to teach us deeper truths.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us of an event in Jesus’s preaching, when the audience says, “Where did this this man receive such wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son?”

John puts this in the Bread of Life discourse: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Jesus himself is full of the Holy Spirit.  He is man, truly son of Mary – but he is infinitely more, by the coming of the Holy Spirit to the womb of Mary.  The Holy Spirit makes this man God; he makes this bread God; and he fills us with God.

The bread does not retain its true nature, because the bread itself is no longer needed – but we men become even more deeply human.  The Eucharist is, Jesus shortly later says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world.”  The bread that does not destroy our nature, but fills us with life.  (And who is “the Lord, the giver of life”?  The Spirit.)

In the Eucharist we are “drawn by the Father.”  We are “taught by God” through the word of Christ, and by faith in Christ, “whoever believes has eternal life.”  And we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the leaven of the Eucharist.

(Perhaps it is right to use unleavened bread, for this is no natural leaven.  This is the leaven of the Spirit we cannot see, but receive in faith.)

***

The work of the Spirit in us is realistic.  In our reading from Ephesians, Paul says that by the Spirit we “were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.”  The heart of Christian morality – and spirituality – is “do not grieve the Holy Spirit.”  We receive the very joy of God.  To live as a Christian is to live by that joy.

In Galatians 5, Paul will say, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”  Christianity is not about rule-following, but the Spirit who takes us deeper than the rules.  Nonetheless, the rules show us what the joy of the Spirit would never lead us to do: “the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.”  This is a life without the Spirit.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.”

Here in Ephesians, Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.”  These concrete things turn to sadness the joy of the leaven of the Spirit.

Rather, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”  Kindness.  It sounds hokey – but the point is, how do we live if we have the joy of the Holy Spirit within us?  We “live in love,” and we live as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” a bread of life, a spotless victim, holy and acceptable to God.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

How could you practice better devotion to the leaven of the Spirit in the Eucharistic bread of life?

 

 

 

eric.m.johnston

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