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Reflections for the XX Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the twentieth Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the readings stress the fact that the Holy Eucharist, the perfect fulfillment of the symbol of the manna of the Old Testament, is the Food that gives us life forever.

Prv 9:1-6, Eph 5:15-20, Jn 6: 51-58

Homily starter anecdote: # 1: Touching the body of Christ! St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), had a rule that when a newcomer arrived to join her Order, the Missionaries of Charity, the very next day the newcomer had to go to the Home of the Dying. One day a girl came from outside India to join the Order.  Mother Teresa said to her: "You saw with what love and care the priest touched Jesus in the Host during Mass. Now go to the Home for the Dying and do the same, because it is the same Jesus you will find there in the broken bodies of our poor people." Three hours later the newcomer came back and, with a big smile, said to her, "Mother, I have been touching the body of Christ for three hours." "How? What did you do?" Mother Teresa asked her. "When I arrived there," she replied, "they brought in a man who had fallen into a drain and been there for some time. He was covered with dirt and had several wounds. I washed him and cleaned his wounds. As I did so I knew I was touching the body of Christ." To be able to make this kind of connection we need the help of the Lord himself. It is above all in the Eucharist that he gives us this help as stated in today’s gospel. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

Introduction: Today’s readings stress the fact that the Holy Eucharist, the perfect fulfillment of the symbol of the manna of the Old Testament, is the Food that gives us life forever.   In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus declared that the Bread he gives is his Flesh. This Sunday, Jesus asserts that to eat this Bread is to have eternal life.    The first and second readings encourage us to turn aside from those things that do not nourish and sustain us and turn towards the Divine source: “be filled with the Spirit.”   In today’s first reading, taken from the Book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom, representing God, offers wisdom and understanding in the form of a rich banquet to all those who are willing to heed her invitation. The early Christians often identified Jesus as the Wisdom of God. They regarded the Eucharist as Wisdom’s banquet, where they shared in the Divine Wisdom now present in Jesus. In the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 34), we thank God for His providential care and His close association with His people which invites and enables us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” In the second reading, Paul advises the Gentile Christians to show their gratitude to God for calling them, along with the Jews, to Christianity, and for giving them a share in Christ’s life. They will be able to receive this life by avoiding their former foolish ways, like getting drunk on wine. Instead they are to be Spirit-filled with their talk edifying, always trying to discern and do the will of God. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus asserts that eating the Living Bread, himself, allows us to participate in his divine life and to grow here and now in our eternal life with God. Jesus emphasizes the eternal-life dimensions of eating His Body and drinking his Blood. "Eternal life" is complete and lasting happiness, satisfying our deepest longings and realizing all our dreams. We begin to experience this happiness in this world and enter it completely and forever in Heaven. This means that those who have Faith in Jesus have already stepped into Heaven in this life, sharing in God’s own life and therefore in eternal life. In the case of the Eucharist, once we start eating and drinking Jesus’ Body and Blood, we’re there. Our participation in the Eucharist also concretizes and energizes our relationship with Christ and with one another.

First reading, Proverbs 9:1-6, explained: In Old Testament times, most people believed that Heaven and Hell existed within this present life rather than in the future. According to Proverbs, Heaven exists in the quest for Divine wisdom, that is, the quest to discover Yahweh's presence in everything and everyone.  Those who discover how God operates in this world will live fulfilled and happy lives. In chapter nine from which today’s first reading is taken, Wisdom is depicted as a gracious hostess inviting the people to a fine banquet.  "Wisdom" becomes the symbolic image of the search for God's will.  As this reading suggests, Faith opens up the fonts of wisdom to nourish us. “Wisdom spreads out a banquet to which we all are invited. The meat and wine that she offers is insight and understanding, and we would be fools to turn down her invitation. Jesus, too, spreads a banquet before us. He offers us himself, his flesh for the life of the world. If we turn down his invitation, we would be more than fools. We would be rejecting life itself.” (www.americamagazine.org). The reading invites us to this excellent banquet: the banquet depicted in today’s GospelJohn 6:51-58.  When we partake of the Flesh and Blood of Christ, we are filled with true wisdom.  Here, wisdom means knowing the will of God in our lives, knowing the real values in life and knowing how to live life as God means us to live. In their hymns and creeds, early Christians often identified Jesus as the Wisdom of God. The Bread of Life discourse in John indicates that the Eucharist is Wisdom’s banquet, where we share in the Divine Wisdom Incarnate in Jesus.

Second Reading, Ephesians 5:15-20, explained: In the earlier chapters of his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul reveals God’s secret plan.  It is to extend the call of the Chosen People to the Gentiles, too.  Hence, in today’s selection, Paul advises the Gentile Christians to show their gratitude to God by avoiding their former foolish ways, like “getting drunk on wine.”  Instead, they have “to be filled with the Spirit, understand the will of the Lord and address one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual singing, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”  Paul encourages the community in Ephesus "to discern the will of the Lord." The authentic follower of Jesus gives “thanks always and for everything."  Paul believes that no one can be a faithful follower of God without actively trying to discover God's will for him or her. The apostle believes that we can discover God’s will wherever we may be.

Gospel exegesis: The background: Although the traditional and accepted view of today's selection from the Bread of Life discourse is that the passage represents a literal event in the life of Jesus, there are some Bible scholars who suggest that this passage is simply a theological reflection on the Eucharist, written for the early Christians.   Among the four Gospels, only John’s Gospel fails to mention the Eucharistic institution at the Last Supper.  Instead he dedicates five chapters (13-17) to reporting Jesus' discourse, a dialogue between Jesus and his critics, on that theme.  Today’s selection, the fourth of five excerpts from this discourse (read on successive Sundays), shows the shocked reaction of some people to Jesus’ blunt statement that the Life-giving bread which he is going to give them is his own Body and Blood. “Sadly, chapter 6 is the source of considerable division and difference of opinion among experts in the Gospel of John, and their interpretations often fall according to denominational lines, with Catholics largely holding to a “sacramentalist” understanding, which is generally denied by many Protestant (especially evangelical) commentators. However, whether or not they agree with the Catholic view of this verse, many exegetes (including non-Catholics) certainly see in this chapter the influence of the early Church’s practice of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper; Culpepper is one of many who speak of “clear Eucharistic overtones.” (Dr. Watson).

[Two dimensions of Jewish worship provide the context of today’s Gospel, the fourth part of the ‘bread of life’ discourse in John 6. When an animal was sacrificed on the temple altar, part of the meat was given to worshipers for a feast with family and friends, at which God was honored as the unseen “Guest.”  It was even believed by some that God entered into the flesh of the sacrificed animal, so that when people rose from the feast they believed they were literally “God-filled.” In Jewish thought, blood was considered the vessel in which life was contained: as blood drained away from a body so did its life.  The Jews, therefore, considered blood sacred, as belonging to God alone.  In animal sacrifices, blood was ritually drained from the carcass and solemnly “sprinkled” upon the altar and the worshipers by the priest as a sign of being touched directly by the “life” of God. With this understanding, then, John summarizes his theology of the Eucharist, the new Passover banquet (remember that John’s Last Supper account will center around the “mandatum,” the theology of servanthood, rather than the blessing and breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup).  To feast on Jesus the “bread” is to “feast” on the very life of God -- to consume the Eucharist is to be consumed by God. In inviting us “to feed on his flesh and drink of my blood,” Jesus invites us to embrace the life of his Father: the life that finds joy in humble servanthood to others; the life that is centered in unconditional, total, sacrificial love; the life that seeks fulfillment not in the standards of this world but in the treasures of the next.”] (Connections).

Life-giving Bread from Heaven: "I, myself, am the living Bread come down from Heaven." “Come down from Heaven” refers to the Incarnation and announces Jesus’ Divine origins; without the Son’s becoming a human being there would be neither Sacrament nor Salvation.   Eating this Bread results in profound at-oneness with the Divine: the Son-become-man.   The reference to the future, "I will give," points to Jesus’ sacrificial death and to his "Flesh," which was to be offered on Calvary and shared at every Eucharistic celebration.   Jesus reminds his listeners that this was not the first time in the history of salvation that God had provided his people with food.   The people knew about the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness.   They now must realize how that experience differed from Jesus’ feeding his followers with the Holy Eucharist.

A shocking statement: Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you do not have life within you,” Jesus insists. That we cannot have everlasting life unless we eat Jesus' Body and drink his Blood was a shocking message to the listeners. Indeed, Jewish law prohibited the eating of human flesh, and blood of any kind was considered to be the actual life of a living being.   Drinking of blood, consequently, was prohibited in Judaism and in early Christianity (Gen 9:4; Lev 17:10, 12, 14; cf. Acts 15:29).   Some of Israel’s Old Testament neighbors apparently drank blood as a religious act, believing that if they drank the blood of an animal they took into themselves the strength and vitality of that creature because blood was life, and life was blood.   Seeking life from the blood of an animal was idolatrous for Israelites because life comes from God alone.   In addition, for the Jews, blood itself was a spiritual contaminant, and coming in contact with blood immediately rendered one ritually unclean.  That was why a woman was considered to be ritually unclean for forty days after she gave birth to a child.  We recently saw in the Gospel (OT 13 [B],) how a woman with a chronic hemorrhage of blood dared not approach Jesus openly.  In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite on their way to the Temple would not contaminate themselves by contact with the injured man because he was bleeding.  To this day, observant Jews will eat only Kosher meat from which the blood has been fully drained. “To say ‘Amen’ is to vigorously state one’s belief in something or someone, to vouch for their reliability or certainty.” (Dr. Watson).

The Bread of Life from Heaven is the Body of Christ: The Bread of Life, or the Holy Eucharist, is the Sacramental Body of Christ.  Theologians recognize four elements in this “Body of Christ.” 1) The physical body is the physical body of Christ, which was born in Bethlehem and died on Calvary.   2) The risen body is the transformed and glorified body of Jesus (I Cor 15: 35-49) in which Jesus appeared to his disciples.   3) The Mystical Body is the Church which is the continuation of Jesus Christ on earth.   Each baptized believer is an integral part (member), of the Mystical Body of Christ.   4) The Sacramental Body is related to and distinct from the above-mentioned bodies of Christ.  During the Holy Mass, Jesus takes the bread and wine which we offer on the altar, offers it to God his Father and declares: “This is no longer your body, it is My Body; this is no longer your life’s blood, it is My Blood.”  The Eucharist is, thus, Jesus' sacrificing himself, dying for us, and calling us to perform the same sacrifice for others. The Eucharist is the eternal sacrifice of Jesus providing life to those who eat his Body and drink his Blood.  Thus, the Holy Mass is the Sacramental act which transforms our lives into the Divine Life.   In each Mass, Jesus transforms us into other Christs - ritually, sacramentally and existentially – thus keeping his promise: “I will be with you till the end of the world.”

 

The deeper meaning: In spite of the Jewish antipathy to eating human flesh and blood, “eating Jesus' Flesh and drinking his Blood" became a common liturgical activity for Christians around the time of John's Gospel.   The second century martyr, St. Ignatius of Antioch, said, "For food I want the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ and for drink I want His Blood, which is incorruptible love."   It was at the Last Supper that Jesus linked his Flesh with the bread he blessed, broke and shared with his disciples.  Likewise, he linked his Blood with the cup of wine he blessed, offered, and passed around, Blood that was the pledge of an unbreakable bond between Jesus and his people. "This is my Body (my Flesh)... This is My Blood... which will be poured out for you.”   The Bread that we eat in the Eucharist is the Body of the Risen Lord; the Wine that we drink in the Eucharist is the Blood of the Risen Lord.   When Jesus spoke of his Flesh and Blood as the Food and Drink of eternal life, he was offering himself to the multitude (and so to us), as the real Source of Life.  To eat the Flesh of Jesus and to drink his Blood is to become totally identified with Christ’s very Person, with his deepest thoughts, with his vision of life, with his values, and with his mission to build the Kingdom of God.   In other words, Jesus is here calling us to follow him, to be with him, and to share totally and unconditionally his mission and destiny.   Thus, the Eucharist is more than a memorial of Jesus' death (see 1 Cor 11:23-25).  Rather, it is the continuation of Jesus’ life after his Resurrection (Luke 24:13-35).  

Heaven on earth theology: “Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks my Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”    "Eternal life" is complete and lasting happiness satisfying our deepest longings and realizing all our dreams.   But Jesus’ audience was content with the “bread" they already possessed:  the Mosaic Law.    Their ancestors ate this "heavenly bread" but "died nonetheless."   Jesus is as essential for our resurrected existence as food and drink are for our earthly life. Remember what Jesus told Martha after her brother Lazarus died?   "I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me, even if he die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”   Heaven doesn’t begin after death.  It already exists for those who believe in Jesus.   Jesus warns us that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we “do not have Life within you” and so will not live in joy with him forever.  But when we begin to eat and drink Jesus’ Body and Blood, we are already receiving his eternal life, and we are already in Heaven.   No wonder that unless we eat this Food and drink from this Cup we will not have Divine life within us!  

The teaching of the Fathers of the Church was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s Body and Blood" (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 440).  Ignatius of Antioch declares, “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ.” Irenaeus of Lyons asks, “If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?” (Against Heresies 4:33–32 [A.D. 189]).  Clement of Alexandria reminds us, “’Eat my flesh,’ [Jesus] says, ‘and drink my blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients, he delivers over his flesh and pours out his blood, and nothing is lacking for the growth of his children” (The Instructor of Children 1:6:43:3 [A.D. 191]).  St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 4th century, teaches, “The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the holy and adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ” (Catechetical Lectures 19:7 [A.D. 350]).  Theodore of Mopsuestia (AD 350-428), states flatly, “When [Christ] gave the bread he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my body,’ but, ‘This is my body’).” (Commentary on Matthew 26:26).

What does the Church’s Tradition (Magisterium, or official teaching authority) say? There are literally dozens of official Catholic documents on the many aspects of the Eucharist, including statements of Church councils, individual Popes, and bishops’ conferences. Among these, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (issued under Pope St. John Paul II, 1995) is a particularly helpful source of basic information on the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.

The Protestant Deviation (from E-Priest): This is one of the main distinctions between the different branches of Christianity.  Catholic Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians have maintained the ancient Faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  But during the Protestant Reformation, which took place in northern Europe in the fifteen and sixteen hundred, the different Protestant groups stopped believing in the Real Presence.  Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox and some other reformers started their own churches, breaking away from the Catholic Church.  It was during this period that the many different Protestant denominations began to appear: Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists...  The Puritans who arrived on the shores of Massachusetts in the 1600s, the ones Americans call "the pilgrims," were a spinoff of these reformed churches. All of these new Christian groups continued to celebrate some kind of communion service in their Sunday worship, at least once or twice a year. But none of them believed firmly and clearly that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist. They all taught that Jesus was only speaking symbolically when he said, as we heard in today's Gospel, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life."  But if Jesus had been speaking of a mere symbol, and not a real sacrament, would he have referred to eating and drinking his flesh and blood seven times?  Would he have made such an effort to explain that his flesh is "real food" and his blood "real drink" (verse 55)?  Would he have used two different verbs to make sure he was understood: "phago" (verses 50 and 51), which means to consume a meal, and then, after his listeners expressed shock and doubt, "trago" (verses 53-58), which means to gnaw, crunch, or chew, as when we eat raw vegetables, or when cattle graze on grass?

Life messages: # 1: We need to allow our body to be broken and our blood shed for others as Jesus did: When we receive Jesus in Holy Communion we accept a great challenge.  We accept the triumphs and the tragedies, the joys and the pains necessary to build up the Kingdom of God wherever we have been called to serve.   That is why, at the end of the Mass, we are sent out to announce the Gospel of the Lord (Form 2), through the witness of our humble service and exemplary lives, radiating Jesus’ love, mercy, forgiveness and spirit of service all around us. As we walk away from the altar we may perhaps hear Jesus saying: "This is my Body, which will be given up for you" and "This is the Chalice of my Blood … which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”.   What a power we would be for our world around us if each one of us could say that and mean it!   That is why, at the end of the Mass, we are sent out with, "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life"(Form 3), through our lives.  

#2: We need to keep the hunger and thirst for God alive in our hearts: Every human being is blessed with an insatiable longing for God. We want God as our Father to hold us gently in His arms, keeping us safe throughout the dangers we face.   But often we use substitutes as an escape from that need: fast living, fast food, fast cars, needless luxuries, unrestricted sexual fulfillment.  We demand the right to do whatever we want to do whenever we want.  But unless we keep the hunger for God strong in our hearts, we will eventually realize the emptiness of our lives without God. (Fr. Anthony Kadavil).

16 August 2018, 09:43