Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Hard Saying

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

For the last four Sundays, we have been reading in the section of St. John’s gospel called the ‘Bread of Life discourse,’ and we have heard all the sublime and beautiful teaching of Jesus about how he gives himself to the world as the food of salvation we receive here at Mass. Today we arrive at the end of the discourse and its jarring and anti-climactic conclusion. After all of this encouraging and beautiful teaching, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” They said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

So it was with the first disciples of Jesus, as it was with the first hearers of the gospel of John, and so it is now. Our Lord’s gift of himself as the Bread for the life of the world, kept for us in the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist down through the centuries, remains a ‘hard saying.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (§ 1374) From the early Church until today, unbelievers have mocked, despised, and disregarded our Catholic teaching on the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Even among us Catholics, public opinion polls have suggested that many of us don’t even really believe what the Church teaches about the Body and Blood of Christ we receive here at Mass. Not that they’re really to blame sometimes, because there is a lot of bad or at least incomplete doctrine and preaching out there. I remember one of my own teachers, a Catholic priest and professor of theology, taught us a certain analogy for understanding the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It seemed kind of fishy to me at the time, so imagine my surprise and vindication when I came across the same analogy—in the works of the protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli!

That Jesus Christ, broken on the Cross and rising to new life as the first fruits of the Resurrection to come, should give that same broken and risen body to us as the Bread of Life here at Mass, remains a ‘hard saying,’ and even us who are believers can admit it. To me, I think this is a hard teaching on two levels. The first level seems hard at first but really isn’t, and the second level we don’t always think about, but it’s the one that is actually the hardest.

To believe that the bread and wine we offer here at Mass become the Body and Blood of Christ is perhaps not too hard. Since there is nothing to see, no observable change in the elements—God being way too humble a character for that—our belief is basically just an intellectual assent. But it’s also an assent we come to by our concrete experience. If we receive Holy Communion each week as devoutly as we can, making use of the sacrament of confession when we need to, we will see the fruits of the Presence of Christ we receive in our lives. We will be changed and set each day more on the path of spiritual freedom and sanctity. Thus we will come to believe more fully that we have actually received the Presence of Christ into our lives and we will have an ever easier time consenting to the truth of his Presence in the Eucharist we receive.

The really hard thing is to encounter the kind of God who wills to be revealed in this way. This, to me, is the truly difficult teaching, the ‘hard saying’ of Christianity. When God reveals himself to the world, what appears? On the one hand a newborn, vulnerable child, born of young, poor parents away from home. On the other hand, God reveals himself as a condemned criminal, tortured and in the midst of his execution. These are the mysteries of the Nativity and the Passion, the revelations of God in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and they reveal a God who is sublimely humble. Far from lording it over the world like a god we might create in our image, our God is one who places himself below us as our Suffering Servant.

This is not a god sitting on a lofty throne dispensing blessings to his friends and punishments on his enemies. This is not the landlord god who allows us to live in a state of grace as long as we behave. This is not a god who delights in controlling his creation. No. This is the living God who reveals himself in the humility of a vulnerable baby, in the humiliation of a tortured criminal, and who continues these sublimely humble and humbly sublime Presences among us by giving himself to us as our Nourishment. So let us receive the humble God into our bodies and our lives as devoutly as we can, and so become the mystery of humble service to the world that we receive in the Bread of Life.

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