Sunday, August 12, 2018

Jesus: bread of life and food for our pilgrimage

1 Kgs 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Eph 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

Whenever it's been a quiet week on Καθολικός διάκονος it means I am having a busy week. This past week I was very busy. I did manage to post a traditio on Friday and today I am posting something on this week's Sunday readings.

In terms of our Gospel reading, this is the third of five weeks when we read from the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel. This chapter, of course, is called the Bread of Life Discourse. As I mentioned a few weeks back, due to the brevity of the Gospel According St. Mark, in Year B of the three-year Sunday cycle, during which our primary Gospel is Mark, on Sundays of weeks 17-21 in Ordinary Time, the Church supplements Mark with the Bread of Life Discourse. Hence, these five weeks give us an opportunity to focus very intensely on the central act of our faith: receiving Holy Communion at Mass.

In our first reading the prophet Elijah, who is at the point of despair and begging God to kill him, finds a place to rest under a broom tree. Upon being awakened by an angel, he finds bread and water. On the strength provided by this nourishment and hydration, he makes his forty day and forty night pilgrimage to the mountain of God. Allegorically, our life, too, is a pilgrimage to God's mountain. Atop the mountain of God sits Jerusalem, our true home. Taking our cue from Abraham, our father in faith, God's people has always been a Pilgrim People. Hence, Christ's Church is a Pilgrim Church (see Lumen Gentium, Chap. VII). The Eucharist is our food and drink for the journey.

Like Elijah plopping down under the broom tree, it is likely that at certain points along our pilgrim path we might grow weary and be tempted to despair. I think given the seemingly ceaseless scandals the Church faces, which reveal to us that what ails the Church runs more deeply than we have heretofore thought, it is very easy to wonder whether or not it's worth it to continue the journey, or, like the ancient Israelites in last week's first reading, if our journey has a destination, wondering if we've been sold a bill of goods and left to fend for ourselves. Even through these doubts, anger, and fear, I remain firmly convinced that the Eucharist sustains us.

Looking ahead to our Gospel reading in two weeks, in the wake of all the deeply disturbing revelations of very dark sins by men who were without a doubt wolves wearing a shepherd's costume, like those disciples who were scandalized by Jesus telling them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood, we are tempted to return to our former way of life and no longer follow Jesus, to no longer affiliate with or adhere to the Church. I don't know about you, but having encountered the risen Jesus in a life-changing way, like Peter, when asked by the Lord, "Do you also want to leave?" I can only reply: "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:67-68).

You might be thinking something like, "Yeah, you're a deacon. You're a member of the clergy. What else are you gonna say?" Well, as a deacon and a member of the clergy who does not make a living through ministry but who ministers largely for free, my answer would be something like: "I don't give this answer because I am ordained. I am ordained because this is my answer." Like Zack Mayo, whom Gunny Foley is committed to breaking by making him quit in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, "I got nowhere else to go." There is no one to whom I can turn but the One who took pity on my nothingness, who loves me not just to the point of death but to the point of rising from the dead, thus proving to me, at least, that he is "the Holy One of God" (John 6:69).

The Church is holy because Christ is holy. The Church is pure because Christ is pure. The Church is the Lord's sometimes straying Bride, what the Tradition has dubbed the casta meretrix (i.e., the chaste whore). In making this assertion I do not mean to suggest for one minute that the hierarchy is the Church. It is not. The Church is the entire Pilgrim People of God, those who died, were buried, and who rose with Christ to new life through the waters of Baptism. Presently, however, it is those in the hierarchy, some of whom, like Theodore McCarrick, who ascended to the heights of the hierarchy, whose infidelity and betrayal is causing so much distress for so many Church members. Nonetheless, Christ remains faithful even when his Bride is unfaithful. As we read in 2 Timothy: "If we are unfaithful he remains faithful." Christ remains faithful because he condescended to become one of us in order to incorporate us into himself; "he cannot deny himself"(2 Tim 2:13). Besides, when Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church (Matt 16:18), he did not guarantee it wouldn't be pressed against the bars of said gates.



In that wonderful passage on the sacramental and eschatological nature of marriage found a bit further on in the fifth chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul wrote about this very thing:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body (Eph 5:25-30
In our reading from Ephesians today we hear about just the kind of healing our faithful participation in the Eucharist should bring about. In imitatio Christi, we renounce "All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling," as well as "all malice" (Eph 4:31). Instead, we are to "be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ" (Eph 4:31). As God has forgiven you in Christ... you need to always keep in mind the great mercy the Father gives you in Christ by the power of their Holy Spirit. This does not mean you overlook egregious sin or wrong-doing. When considering the sickening sin of clerical sex abuse, it certainly does not mean forgetting about justice for victims. I think one of the Intercessions for today's Evening Prayer (Sunday Evening Prayer II, Week III of the Psalter) frames this very well:
Through your Son, the herald of reconciliation, the victor of the cross,
   -free us from empty fear and hopelessness
In his magnificent encyclical on the theological virtue of hope, Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI wrote something that is well worth remembering when thinking about justice and mercy:
Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened (sec. 44)
Picking up a thread from last Sunday's Gospel, in which Jesus told the hungry crowd that doing the work of God means believing "in the one he sent" (John 6:29), in today's Gospel Jesus tells the same crowd, "whoever believes has eternal life" (John 6:47).

Belief requires an object, which means that believing means believing in something, or, in this case, believing in someone. What one needs to believe to have eternal life is that Jesus is "the bread of life" (John 6:48). By believing Jesus is the bread of life, which belief prompts you to partake of it, you will not die but be raised on the last day (John 6:50; John 6:44). This is the cornerstone of Christian faith. Pull it out and everything collapses. Faith, or believing that Jesus is the one sent by God to save us, is called a theological virtue because it is a gift from God. This what Jesus means when he says "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him" (John 6:44). Faith is our response to God's initiative towards us. Faith is neither irresistible, as some suppose, nor is it compelled. You are always free to respond to God's initiative or not. In concrete terms, you respond to God's initiative each time you come to Mass and partake of the bread of life.

Christ summons each one of us to gather together every Sunday and on holy days, like the one coming up this Wednesday, 15 August - the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Believing means being eager to heed the Lord's loving summons. So, together let's partake of the nourishment we need as we make our pilgrim way to the mountain of God, to the eternal city, to the wedding banquet of the Lamb. If, like Elijah, you find yourself at the doorstep of despair, it becomes all the more important to "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord" for yourself.

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