Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

THE EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15

Ephesians 4:17-24

John 6:24-35

The collective memory isn’t very long.  Fifteen days after Moses led them through the divided Red Sea and into the desert, the Israelites grumble under the weight of their newfound freedom.  Food and water are not plentiful.  Hunger alters perspective.  Already their days of slavery don’t seem to have been that bad.  After all, though they were slaves in Egypt, they could indulge themselves regularly at the fleshpots and eat their fill of bread.  But here in the desert?  And 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 and so comes the promise that every morning when the Israelites arise they will find, scattered on the ground like hoarfrost, manna that will be their daily bread.  They will be able to pick up each day enough 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 provides quail as the sun sets and manna as the sun rises.  Their God 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 proffered, blest and broke the bread and distributed it to the crowds.  Jesus is the sign of the bounty of God’s love.  After all have eaten their fill, twelve baskets of leftovers are 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.  And 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.  They 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 as they were when they were fed.  They are not yet 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 the 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 life.  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 leftover bread is reserved, are being put in places in the church of greater and greater prominence, 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 worship space.  The sacramental reality is that the primary focus in the worship space is the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist.  The people of God come together to celebrate Eucharist and so bring about 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 coming into 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 chapel, if you will, 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.  And 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 priest.  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 don’t 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 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.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

2 Kings 4:42-44

Ephesians 4:1-6

John 6:1-15

At the heart of who and what we are as Church is the Eucharist.  The Second Vatican Council declared the Eucharist to be the source and summit of all we do as Church.  For the next several weeks, in the Liturgy of the Word, we will depart from Mark’s Gospel and enter John’s for his discussion of Jesus as the Bread of Life.  We will sit under the Word as is our wont and nosh so as to take in his flesh and drink his blood with implications we may not have begun to imagine.  We’ll have to wait a few weeks until we come to the end of the Jesus-as-the-Bread-of-Life proclamations to see if you agree.

Where does the proclamation begin?  Are you surprised that the starting point is a perceived hunger?  In the first reading we meet the prophet Elisha, the successor to the great prophet Elijah, the prophet God took to heaven in the fiery chariot.  Elijah’s mantle cascaded down onto Elisha’s shoulders and his prophetic mission began.  20 barley loaves, the product of the first harvest, are presented to Elisha who in turn directs that the loaves be given to the people to eat.  20 loaves.  100 people.  Common sense dictates that that will not be enough in order for all the people to have something.  Elisha’s servant protests that he will look foolish placing so little before so many.  Elisha insists with the key understanding that we ought to take from the text: Thus says the Lord, they shall eat and there shall be some left over. It is the Lord who is the source of the bounty.

Exodus is the account of God’s providential care of his chosen people, the Israelites, during their formation period in the desert.  God provides them with abundant water from the Rock, manna, quail, and the people never know hunger.  That providence continues in the Second Book of Kings as the people experience a time of hardship.  The point of the 20 loaves being more than enough is that God provides in excess so that when the next hunger comes, there will be something for them to eat.

Jesus’ mission is to proclaim God’s love for the people, God’s desire that the people be whole and know fulfillment in the healing and forgiveness that Jesus brings.  As Jesus teaches and performs the signs of healing and the driving out of demons, a hunger arises in the people.  Crowds follow Jesus.  Crowds differ from disciples.  Crowds are seekers who have not yet determined to believe in Jesus and so to journey with him as disciples.  They’re not ready yet for commitment.  But they hunger and sense the wonder and mystery that is Jesus.

A little phrase is important for us to hear if we are to get the message.  Jesus went up on the mountain and there he sat down with his disciples. Going up on the mountain designates Jesus as the new Moses.  Moses went up the mountain, spoke with God and brought the Law to the people who waited below – forbidden even to touch the mountain.  Jesus brings the disciples with him for the encounter that will follow.  Jesus sits with his disciples.  He takes a position of authority.

Then comes the test.  What have the disciples learned about Jesus from their experience of him?  Sizing up the crowd coming toward him and their hunger, Jesus asks Philip, Where can we buy enough food for them to eat? The answer Jesus was looking for would have declared in some way Jesus’ messiahship, proclaimed confidence in Jesus’ power to save the situation.  Instead, Philip sums up the magnitude of the problem and assesses the cost to give each of the 5000 just a morsel, far less than a satisfying meal.  Andrew brings forth a lad with a few loaves and a couple of fish, but what good are these among so many? It’s the boy’s response that is key here.

Jesus directs the disciples to get the crowd to recline as they would at a banquet.  Then, Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them…and also as much of the fish as they wanted. Take.  Give thanks.  Distribute.  That is Eucharistic language.  Every time we celebrate Eucharist, the institution narrative relates that Jesus took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. In our faith experience, these are the central actions of our worship.  Believers come to the table with their hunger.  The Word is broken and they are fed.  The Bread is blessed and broken and they eat.  There is abundance regardless of the size of the Assembly.  In fact there is more than enough.  The supply is never exhausted.  All this is foreshadowed in John’s narrative of the feeding of the five thousand.

In the gospel pericope there is abundance from so little.  But that little had to be offered.  Elisha had 100 people and 20 loaves and then leftovers after they had eaten.  Jesus had 5000 people and five loaves and, afterwards, twelve wicker baskets were filled with the fragments left over after all had eaten their fill. The promise is fulfilled in Jesus, not only fulfilled but in excess of what could have been imagined.  God is a god of bounty and Jesus is the means to that bounty.

There is much to ponder.  To say these are anxious times is to repeat the obvious.  If we allow ourselves to hone in on the people around us we can become aware of their needs.  It is one thing to talk about statistics but if the statistics have faces the impact of whatever they are dealing with is all the greater.  If you know a homeless person, the plight of the homeless has meaning.  To hear that 23 million people in Africa may die of AIDS in the next 10 years is incredible.  But if you have held the hand of someone in that condition it means all the more.  To talk about the number of people suffering from mental illness can make for an interesting discussion.  To weep with someone in that dark night can break your heart.

It is trite to say that the task is monumental.  It belabors the obvious to wonder what we can do to ease the burden.  What is the little we have, these meager resources, among so many?  But it seems clear from the gospel that Jesus expects us to place the little we have at his disposal, to be taken by him, blessed by him, broken and distributed by him.  We just might find that there will be more than enough; even baskets left over after everyone’s needs have been satisfied.

That is really the meaning of the Eucharist we celebrate and why the Eucharist is the source and summit of all we do as church.  The action transforms us and the gifts we bring.  The body of Christ is present – present in the Word proclaimed, present in the Bread and Wine, present in the Assembly.  And it is the Body of Christ, blest, broken and distributed that goes forth and becomes the means to alleviate the needs that confront us.  That is the promise God gives.  It is the hope that Jesus brings.  We just have to respond in faith and let Christ work through us.  That’s the Messianic Age in a nutshell.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Ephesians 2:13-18

Mark 6:30-34

No wonder Jeremiah was unpopular with the establishment.  It is not hard to imagine how he fell into disfavor and was thrown into the cistern where he sank into the mud and cried out to God for vengeance.  If you were one of the religious leaders of his time and were being publicly excoriated for the miserable job you were doing with devastating results for the people, wouldn’t you be furious?  On the other hand, if you had an ounce of humility and could hear in Jeremiah’s prophecy the grace of God challenging you to recognize the errors of your ways, to repent and do a better job at putting the needs of the sheep ahead of the shepherd’s, you might have found yourself secretly thanking him for his courage to speak an unpopular truth.  The fact is that in every age, those who most need the message become most deaf to it because they are the ones in authority, divinely appointed to be so.  Or so it would seem.  Yet even as the prophets are vilified, there are those who listen and change.

We must hear Jeremiah and if we do the result will not be to point the accusatory finger at those presently on the various thrones of authority.  Although there can always be the prayer that they, too, will listen, recognize the errors of their ways, and put the lesson learned into practice.  There is a challenge in the prophecy for each and all of us, not just the present shepherds.

Inept shepherding can lead to disaster for the flock.  And God, speaking through Jeremiah, says that the time has come for God to take back the staff and do the shepherding because those called to the task have proven to be disasters.  The people have suffered.  There is only a remnant left.  And once God has rescued the survivors, God will appoint a new type of shepherd and a successor to David who will reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land. Then Israel will be safe and secure.

That successor to David we believe to be Jesus.  What Jeremiah described as resulting from the reign of the successor we would call the Messianic Age.  That’s why Jesus is called the Christ.  Whether or not that age has been realized is beside the point.  It is God’s will that it will come about through Christ.  But it must be lived by the united body that now goes beyond the once and still chosen people of Israel.

In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds us of God’s first covenant with the Jewish people sealed in Circumcision and evidenced through adherence to the Law.  The Gentiles were excluded.  But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the barriers have come down and the blood of Christ has made all people, Jews and the separated Gentiles alike, one people reconciled to each other and to God in Christ.  Isn’t that another way of describing the Messianic Age?  Forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace available to all are lived in Christ.  And it is Jesus who through his teaching, preaching, and acting exemplified how we are to work to realize the Age.

Take the lead from last week.  Remember that Jesus sent out the twelve to be extensions of him, acting with his authority, bringing about healing and forgiveness for those upon whom the disciples laid their hands.  Even the demons obeyed them.  Now they come back rejoicing in their success, rejoicing and exhausted.  And Jesus tells them to find quiet and take a rest.  Just where could that be?  How will they do that because of what has been unleashed?  The twelve were effective because they met the people where they were and responded to their needs.  That ministry has awakened a hunger for more.  Crowds come wherever the disciples are, yearning for deliverance and understanding.  There is no escaping the crowds even when Jesus suggests that the disciples get into the boat and set off for a deserted place.  The crowds know where Jesus and the disciples are going and beat them there so that crowds are waiting as the twelve disembark and step on shore.

First thing to note is that it is not unreasonable for the disciples to ask for rest and recuperation.  Exhaustion is a field hazard of ministry.  Even Jesus was known to go off by himself and spend nights in deserted places in prayer.  But invariably someone came to him there to remind him of the need should he have forgotten.  Everyone is looking for you. And Jesus would return to the ministry.  The crowds and their needs always come first.  Jesus always serves.

There is an amazing image at the close of this week’s gospel.  When Jesus steps out of the boat the frantic crowds, their number and their needs strike him.  His heart was moved with pity for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd. This is Jeremiah’s image in his prophecy.  No one is shepherding the people.  Jesus’ response is to shepherd them himself.  He begins to teach them many things.  This is not to chastise the legitimately exhausted disciples.  But it is to show them who must always come first.  If they are to share in Jesus ministry, if they are to be Jesus’ other selves, then they must do what Jesus does.

And this brings us back to what might well be the message for us to take to heart from this week’s readings.  There is nothing in the readings that promises the hearers position, power, or profit.  It is all a call to imitate the Good Shepherd.  This is not a ministry that results in being set apart.  It is a ministry of service among.  The Good Shepherd, the consolation in this week’s psalm response, we learn elsewhere is a Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him. He calls them by name.  He lays down his life for his sheep. That ought to be the most to which his disciples aspire.  That is also why elsewhere Jesus challenges those who want to be his disciples to be sure they can take up the cross every day, to be sure that their only strength is Jesus.  This is why he will castigate Peter and demand that Peter learn from Jesus by walking in his footsteps and paying attention to what he does.  Get behind me you Satan! What had Peter done?  He simply had protested that suffering and dying did not fit Peter’s image of who Jesus was as the Messiah.  Peter thought with Messiahship would come position and power – not crucifixion and death.  Who know what Resurrection on the Third Day could possibly mean?

We live in a new age in the Church.  We call it the Church of Vatican Council II.  The Council proclaimed that the Church is the People of God called to live their Baptismal priesthood.  That means that every Baptized person is called to ministry, to shepherd.  Of course it means also that every Baptized person is also called to be ministered to and to be shepherded in the community we call Church.  The Church is a people constantly assembling to be formed in the Word and transformed by the Eucharist.  It is a people constantly growing in the understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ.  It is a people constantly learning the implications of the Bread broken and the Cup poured out, of the meal shared through the procession to Holy Communion.  Never is this action something in which to rest.  Rather it is always something from which the people are sent – themselves to be broken and poured out in imitation of the One who called them to the Table and was broken and poured out for them.

So, in the end we are left with a dichotomy.  There is such a thing as exhaustion and the danger of being burned out by ministering.  Jesus invites the disciples to rest.  But the demands of the poor ones wandering about like sheep without a shepherd must always come first for them, even before their legitimate need for rest.  And those who would be his disciples must always seek to do what Jesus does, to imitate him in everything.  Who can do that?

Only those whose strength is Jesus.

Sincerely,

Didymus