The collective memory isn’t very long. Fifteen days after Moses them through the divided Red Sea and into the desert, the Israelites grumble against Moses as they stress under the weight of their newfound freedom. Food and water are not plentiful. Hunger alters their perspective. Already their days of slavery do not seem to have been that bad. After all, though they were slaves in Egypt, at least they could indulge themselves regularly at the fleshpots and eat their fill of bread. But here in the desert? They whine about their plight and grumble against Moses.
God is a benevolent god. All God wants is to prove God’s love for the people. So comes the promise from God that every morning when the Israelites arise, they will find, scattered on the ground like hoarfrost, manna that will be their daily bread. Each day they will be able to gather enough bread for that day’s need. In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread. God will provide quail as the sun sets. God will provide manna as the sun rises. The God of the Israelites loves with abundant signs.
Remember that last week the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was proclaimed in the Gospel. Jesus took the few loaves the lad offered, blest and broke the bread and distributed it to the crowds. Jesus is the sign of the bounty of God’s love. Remember that after all had eaten their fill, twelve baskets of leftovers were collected. Where there had been want, now there is super abundance.
This week’s Gospel finds Jesus on the other side of the lake, again at Capernaum. Some of those who had witnessed the miracle of the loaves made their way around to where Jesus is, only to hear him say: Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. In other words, they saw the surface event but did not plumb the event for meaning.
Jesus tells them not to be satisfied with merely eating their fill. They’ll be hungry again. Rather they should work for the food that endures for eternal life. These people seem as impertinent as their ancestors in the desert. The multiplication wasn’t enough for them. Now they ask for a sign that will enable them to believe in Jesus. Remember that they are still crowds, just as they were when they were fed. That means they have not yet decided to be disciples. They have not yet come to faith.
So it is that Jesus links the multiplication of loaves to the manna in the desert. He points out that their ancestors ate the manna and still they died. My Father gives you the true bread from heaven…I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. Notice that the crowd does not ask Jesus to stay with them always. Rather, they ask for the bread always. They haven’t made the link.
For these several weeks we are contemplating Eucharist, symbols of which we recognize in the manna and in the multiplication of the loaves. For us, the Eucharist is at the center of our faith life because we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life. Jesus is our life and our hope. But it is important for us to recognize that as much as the Eucharist is the Bread, it is also the action of God’s people giving thanks to God through Jesus. It is paramount that the sign works both ways in our lives. It is important that we do not mute the power of the sign and hamper our ability to recognize and interpret what happens here.
In some churches something is happening that is problematic. Tabernacles, where the leftover Bread is reserved, are placed in ever-greater prominence in the Worship Space, sometimes right behind the altar. Vigil lamps burn by them attesting to the sacred Presence within. So it can seem that the tabernacle is the point of primary focus in the space. And therefore the church assembles to adore the Presence.
In reality, the primary focus in the worship space is the altar where the church assembles to celebrate Eucharist. The people of God come together to celebrate Eucharist that results in the sacramental presence of Jesus in the Bread and Wine. They come together also to enter into Mystery, and so themselves be transformed into the Body of Christ. If, upon entering the worship space, the focus is on that Presence already realized, what is the meaning of the celebration?
The tabernacle ought to have its own space, a reservation chapel, if you sill, where the faithful can gather for prayer and reflection. That place of reservation ought to be easily accessible, suitably adorned, and proper as a place for prayer. It ought to be remembered that the primary reason for reserving the Eucharist in the tabernacle is so that the sick and elderly who are not able to be present for the Mass, may have the Eucharist brought to them, linking them to the Mass through the service of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist.
Signs challenge the witness to dig deep into their meaning and so be challenged to deepen their faith. What is happening here? Is it obvious that there is one Bread to be broken, from which all present will eat? Is it clear that there is one Cup from which the Assembly drinks? Remember the hymn? One bread, one body/ one Lord of all;’ one cup of blessing which we bless/ and we though many throughout the earth/ we are one body in this one Lord.
Another aberration occurring today happens during the Communion Procession. Clearly it is the mind of the Church that the people of God receive Communion from the Bread consecrated at the Mass they are co-celebrating with the Presider. Unfortunately, it is no longer unheard of that the priest is the only one to receive Communion through the bread consecrated at the Mass. The rest of the Assembly receives from the reserved Sacrament. They do not experience the Bread being blessed, broken, and distributed from the Altar. They see it blessed, broken, and consumed by the priest, while they receive from the Hosts in the tabernacle. The sad thing is that the people of God do not complain. They do not understand the distinction between the living sacrifice and the reserved Sacrament because they are used to the way the Liturgy is celebrated. They can come to think that the practice of receiving the reserved Sacrament from the tabernacle is normal.
The General Instruction to the Roman Missal at #85 states: It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass and that, in the instances when it is permitted, they partake of the chalice…so that even by means of the signs Communion will stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated.
And we haven’t even talked about the sign value of the host versus something that more closely resembles bread. One pundit put it: Sometimes I think it takes more faith to believe that the host is bread than it does to believe it is the Body of Christ. But that is a discussion for another time.
In the mean time, remember, celebrate and believe.
There is a difference between the size of the crowd in the first reading and that in the Gospel. There is a difference in the amount of food to be placed before each crowd. Elisha invites the man to place the twenty barley loaves from the first harvest before 100 people. When Jesus asks the disciples where they can find enough food to feed the 5000 people waiting for Jesus, they respond that two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little. It takes a child’s naiveté for the boy to offer five barley loaves, the food of the poor, and a couple of fish to feed the multitude. And the disciples question, what good are these among so many? That is the same question the man in the first reading had for Elisha. In both cases, the little bit becomes a superabundant feast with leftovers to be gathered up, lest they go to waste.
Isn’t it strange that when the miracle of the multiplication of loaves is proclaimed, there aren’t stronger reactions from the Assembly? Perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that few if any are hearing the story for the first time. I’ve never seen someone poke a person near by and ask what the other thought of the amazing story. When we dismiss the tale as impossible, we miss the message we are supposed to hear. God sustains us with abundant mercy that reveals God’s love for the human family.
Then again, how we hear the miracle stories might depend on the character in the narrative with whom we identify. That is an important step to take in hearing the Word. We ought to place ourselves in the reading and so become part of it. Try it this Sunday and see what I mean. It will make all the difference in the world. Are you one of the disciples being challenged by Jesus to provide for the multitude? Are you the lad with the few barley loaves? Are you one of the hungry in the crowd? Make the identification and see how differently you hear the reading then.
In the news for some time now, there are stories regarding the growing epidemic of obesity in our society and in every age group. “Supersize me!” apparently responds to a wide felt craving for huge, rich, fatty and calorie-laden meals. Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, strokes and heart attacks are occurring among younger people with increasing frequency. First Lady, Michelle Obama campaigns for healthy foods for children. Some listen. Many don’t.
I had the blessing of visiting Kenya and Uganda, blessing because my eyes were opened and I acquired a new lens for perspective. More than once I felt panic surge through me as I was confronted by the poverty of the masses. Who would not be moved by seeing pain in parents’ eyes as they wondered from where would come the basics to nourish their children? Shortly after my return to these shores I found myself standing in awe in a supermarket, amazed at the excesses bulging on the shelves. That experience of excess numbed me for a while until I got used to it and the plenty became normal again.
There is a basic tenet of our faith contained in this Sunday’s readings. God, in Hebrew Bible promises to provide for the people. Elisha challenges the man with the barley loaves to believe that and to trust that God can do wonders with a meager offering. Jesus, in the Gospel, does not let the disciples be passive spectators of a hungry people in need. He poses the question: Where can we buy food enough for them to eat? In an instant they did the math and knew the need far exceeded their ability to meet the need. Or so they thought and would continue to think until they understood the One whose disciples they were.
This reading from John’s Gospel begins the sixth chapter that is an exposition of Jesus as the Bread of Life. In the course of the chapter, Jesus will teach us that he is the Bread of life and that we cannot have life within us unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood. He is the fulfillment of all those promises in Hebrew Bible. We will stay with this chapter for the next several Sundays. I pray you will be stunned by its conclusion that will leave us no wiggle room. That’s the way with Jesus, after all.
The multiplication of the Loaves is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. Matthew and Mark have two tellings of it. In the three synoptic Gospels, the Multiplication of the Loaves points to the central action of the Last Supper. But in John’s Gospel there is no institution narrative at the Last Supper or the implications coming from taking part in the Eucharist. In stead, Jesus washes feet and challenges those washed to do the same for each other.
John’s account of the Multiplication story is filled with Eucharistic language. When the disciples get the people to recline, (just as the disciples will recline at table with Jesus on the night before he is to die) Jesus takes the loaves of bread, gives thanks to God, breaks the bread and distributes it to the crowd. The people eat and are satisfied. There are enough fragments left over to fill twelve baskets.
The Israelites ate the miraculous bread, Manna, in the desert during the Exodus. The belief was that that feeding would happen again when the Messiah would come. At that time the hungry will be fed and the poor will have the Good News preached to them. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise.
Jesus in the Daily Bread we plead for in the Lord’s Prayer.
A momentary aside: I find myself hearing this Gospel in a new way in the light of Pope Francis’s preachings of late about the wealthy’s responsibility to assist in relieving the needs of the poor. It will be interesting to see how Congress responds in September when Pope Francis speaks to them. Just as his speaking out about our responsibility to respect the environment has brought some angry responses, so too, I suspect, will his speaking on the Social Gospel of the Church cause teeth to grind. In a society where profit is the principal goal, who will want to hear about Society’s responsibility to share with the poor and lift them up?
We are a Eucharistic people. Celebrating Eucharist is at the heart of our faith lives. How we celebrate Eucharist ought to reflect this Sunday’s Gospel. Now the Risen One is in our midst and is in us as we gather. That is according to the Vatican Council II’s proclamation of the Church as the Body of Christ. We gather individually and as community believing that all are welcome at this Table. We come mindful of the hunger in our lives, a hunger that only Jesus can fill. We come, not as passive spectators, but as active participants, again according to Council teaching, to take the Bread and bless it as we hear Jesus invite us all to take it and eat it because this is Christ’s body. We hear Jesus invite us all to take the Cup and drink from that Blood that is shed for us and for all for the forgiveness of sins. As we respond to Christ’s invitation we realize that as often as we do this we do it in Christ’s memory. Christ is present to us as our strength to go and live this meal that we have shared.
It is from the action that the Eucharist comes. The faithful share in the Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood, from the celebration in which they have taken part. They should not have to receive from the reserved Sacrament from previous Liturgies. The faithful experience Christ present in the Word that is proclaimed, in the Presider, and in the people assembled. If that is their experience, they will be able to recognize Christ’s sacramental presence in the Bread and Wine. And when they have eaten and drunk, they will live the implications of what they have done by being sent out from the assembled to be Christ’s presence to the poorest of the poor and to every other class of society as well.
The challenge for us as Church is to live the Eucharist. In spite of characteristics that seem to stand in conflict with this in the Universal Church, the local church can remain committed to being a servant church where all are welcome and the dignity of each, especially the marginalized, is affirmed. Again, we must listen to Pope Francis’s call for a renewed Church. Gathering as two or three, or two or two hundred, wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ is present and so is the whole Church. There is only One Bread, One Body, On Cup of Blessing which we share. In reaching out to the poor, the alienated, the off scouring of society, it is Christ who welcomes and heals and reminds us that there is one God and Father of us all. All of us are redeemed and forgiven by the Lord’s dying and rising.
We are a Eucharistic people. Alleluia is our song!
The vice that seemed to irritate Jesus the most was hypocrisy, that is, to pretend to be something on the outside that did not correspond with the inner self. More than once Jesus chastised the Pharisees, the epitome of those preoccupied with the minutiae of the Law, for being among those who pay lip service to God, but whose hearts were far from God. The Pharisees condemned Jesus because he cured the blind and the lame on the Sabbath. They were rankled because he welcomed sinners and ate with them. Jesus’ attitudes and values scandalized them.
In this Beatitude, Jesus urges those who choose to be his disciples to be single minded in their desire to do God’s will in everything they say and do. Let no thing hold God’s place in their lives. We hear the phrase “pure in heart” and more than likely think the Beatitude speaks to purity in the flesh, that is, to sexual purity. Of course a right-ordered sexuality is apt here. But Jesus is not casting negative aspersions on the flesh. He is not saying that flesh is innately sinful. Nor is he saying that one can only please God in the spirit. There have been those down through the ages that have taught that the flesh is sinful and that “saints” are called to flee the flesh and live in extreme asceticism. Saints should scourge the body, fast excessively, and live in isolation, cut off from human commerce.
That is not what Jesus taught. If we go back to the beginning as it is described in the Book of Genesis, the proclamation is made that everything God creates is good. “Let us make human kind in our image and likeness.” Man and woman are at the apex of creation. In that innocence are told to go forth and multiply. Sexuality is not an evil, but an essential part of what it means to be human. Flesh is not evil. Man and woman are innately good in God’s eyes. Flesh is not evil. We believe that the Word became flesh and continues to live in and among human kind.
Certainly Jesus calls his disciples to live right-ordered lives when he says that the single-hearted are blessed. All the senses are to be right-ordered. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on? (He declared all foods clean.) He said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles that one. For from within, out of the heart, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile.”
Each of the capital sins focuses our attention on how the senses can be disordered. Lust rises out of disordered sexuality and demeans the other. Gluttony results in appetites out of control. Gluttons eat too much or drink too much alcohol. Addictions are forms of gluttony. Greed destroys perspective regarding wealth. Legend puts King Midas before us as one who was destroyed by lust for money. Scripture does not say that money is the root of all evil. Rather it says that love of money is that root.
Sloth puts the human in perpetual idle, lazing, and doing nothing productive. St. Paul raged at the slothful and told the rest of the community that they should not feed those who do not work. It’s important that we note that Paul is talking about those who choose not to work. There is a communal responsibility to attend to the needs of the poor, including those who cannot find work.
Envy causes one to lust after someone else’s goods, making one willing to do anything to make the envied object one’s own. Envy drove Cain to kill his brother Abel. We know that pride comes before the fall. The prideful one sees himself as superior to and better than the other, and so denies the other’s dignity and worth.
Blessed are the single-hearted, they shall see God. The single-hearted, or pure in spirit, live right-ordered lives. They do not give themselves over to the capital sins. They live in right-ordered relationship with others, recognizing others as their brothers and sisters that, like them, are created in the image and likeness of God, and like them, are the beloved of God. The pure in spirit are also single-minded in their desire to see all people live in justice and peace and abhor anything that will make them subservient. Again, Jesus is the model.
The Jews dreaded ritual impurity incurred by the coming into contact with someone deemed to be impure. One who became tainted by such contact was ritually impure and could not enter temple worship before being cleansed and declared clean by the priest. Jesus turns that attitude upside down when he reaches out to the shunned and through his healing and forgiving touch draws them back into community. In quick succession in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a leper, a desperate (Gentile) centurion, a hemorrhaging woman, and a dead girl. He touches each one of these people who, in their condition, the law said should have rendered Jesus impure through such contacts. But Jesus not only does not accept that impurity, but also, by touching them and declaring them healed, restores them to a pure state.
Then there are the “shocking” guests he welcomed to his table. He shared meals with prostitutes, tax collectors, and generic sinners. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” became one of the key charges leveled against Jesus that called for his crucifixion.
Notice that in each of the encounters, it wasn’t Jesus who changed, but those who yielded to his transforming touch.
Each one of us who knows what it means to be a sinner, that is, who recognize that all of our appetites are not quite right ordered, must come to understand that we, too, need that healing encounter with Jesus. That happens when we let the light of Christ shine on our lives and so help us to see not only what we are, but also, what we might become through Christ’s grace.
Each of those who gives his/her life over to one or other of the deadly sins, in Christ sees how that life can be changed. That is when imitation of Christ becomes the goal of living. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points out Jesus to two of his disciples who have been searching. As they approach, Jesus turns to them and asks, “What are you looking for?” They respond, “Master, where do you live?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” They respond to the invitation and stay with Jesus that night.
Following Jesus on The Way necessarily involves learning what it means to imitate him. That imitation always will result in humble service of the poor and others deemed by the rest of society to be outcasts.
It is paramount that the Church imitates Jesus in this attitude. Rather than judging and condemning, the message must continually go out loudly and clearly that all are welcome here in this assembly. Pope Francis responded to a question about a class of people by saying, “Who am I to judge?” That response was heard around the world. Sad to say, the Church in former times was known for burning people at the stake. Excommunication is a response some would like to see exercised – probably the same ones who agree with capital punishment. The pope’s attitude is Christ-like. So ought ours to be.
One final note on this subject. Notice that when Jesus calls the disciples, they have to leave everything and follow him. In order to enter that purity of heart, that single-heartedness, we have to be willing to let go of whatever stands in the way of our experiencing God. That takes us back to those capital sins. We must let go of those addictions and so find the freedom of the children of God. Then we experience the happiness that Jesus said would result from that purity of heart.
And then there will be peace.