Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
John 6:41-51 (19th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Sometimes parents tell me their teen or adult children cannot accept our central Catholic belief that we consume the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus in Holy Communion, literally. “My flesh is real food. My blood is real drink.” (John 6:55-56)
They’re too young to remember an aggressive, televised debate between two champions of opposing views, since called home to God: Fr. Gene Jakubek, SJ, and the militant atheist, Madilyn Murray O’Hare. Murray O’Hare snapped at Fr. Gene, “You Catholics are cannibals! How can you eat someone’s body and drink someone’s blood? Disgusting!”
For a look at our bedrock belief, a short review of themes from the Judeo-Christian scriptures may remind us of God’s patient power, ever at work throughout salvation history, slowly leading toward his ultimate gift to us sinners: Jesus his Son, our now glorified Savior.
Our first reading, this 18th Sunday, is an excellent starting point. After the incredible events surrounding Passover, the early challenge of a daunting Exodus, panic attacks at the Red Sea, the sheer marvel of passing right through it, the drowning of every Egyptian force in hot pursuit – the Hebrew pilgrims were grumbling once again. No matter what they had witnessed, fears about the uncertainty ahead totally controlled their insecurities.
Moses realized such bitter complaints were basically against the God of their fathers and mothers, not him directly. Their patience was worn thin from “this wretched food,” scarce enough on a barren desert floor. But rather than punish such lack of trust, the Lord’s surprising might worked yet another wonder to reveal his ongoing care.
Ample quail to hunt by night was reassuring, but an unknown, super-natural phenomenon lay beneath the dew every morning after it evaporated. This was bread come down from heaven, Moses explained, sweet to the taste and life-giving to satisfy daily energy needs before noon.
So singular was this life-saving food that it became a synonym for the Sinai Covenant itself. To live faithfully in accord with the prescriptions of the Law was to eat the Bread of Life and live intimately with the Lord, the God of Israel, ever more deeply.
Well into his public ministry, Jesus of Nazareth identified himself as the Bread of Life in person. The amazing Sixth Chapter of John’s Gospel builds up to a climactic crescendo: many in the large crowd following him who hear his insistence that they must actually eat his flesh and drink his blood to live forever are completely turned off and no longer walk with him.
They thought entirely within what they understood as these absolute limits of time and space. No wonder they were grossed out and could only be repulsed by even the thought of cannibalism. They had no realization of the radical breakthrough which the Resurrection of the once crucified Christ would effect. They couldn’t begin to imagine the incredible transformation of material reality about to take place because the Son of God was raised up by the Father in the Holy Spirit and destroyed the stranglehold of death once and for all.
There was continuity with his demolished corpse. Risen from the tomb at the appointed early hour, he bore the nail marks in his wounded hands and feet. He likewise carried into glory his side pierced with the soldier’s lance. Visible signs of his Passion and Death, yes, but such badges of shame had become fully divinized through and through.
Mel Gibson didn’t exaggerate the brutalized body of Jesus torn to shreds. (“The Passion of the Christ”) But once sealed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the victorious healing of the Cross gave him a body radiating glory forever.
He is omnipresent. He can appear and disappear at will, as the two disciples learned on their way to Emmaus. He can penetrate human flesh, psyche and spirit thoroughly, closer to the depth of any person than an individual could possibly be to themself. (e.g., Luke 24:32)
He has again charged all creation with the grandeur of God, so tragically disfigured by both original and the historic aggregate of sin. He has renewed our human capacity to receive God, the Creator’s intent from the beginning to deify each of us in our finite being to live out his holiness.
Can this be real? The people of the Exodus survived the desert on heavenly manna, but died nonetheless. Jesus, the definitive and living Bread come down from heaven to nourish every age, adapts his transcendent, sanctifying grace to fit our humble level while he guides us further into eternity.
He uses the ancient, Hebrew signs of bread and wine to show by familiar food and drink, consecrated at Eucharist, that they are truly and really he, his immortal flesh and blood for us to eat and drink on the journey.
For our salvation and that of the whole world.