Monday, 13 August 2012

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

In 2001 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, our present Pope, published a small book entitled God Is Near Us. One of the chapters in that book is headed The Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament. It makes wonderful reading. He begins this chapter with the very text of the Gospel of today's Mass: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.

Yes, indeed, God is near us, and we might recall with joy the exultant words of Deuteronomy 4:7: What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us?

In Jesus God himself has taken flesh and come to dwell among us, sharing our human condition and giving himself totally in love to us and for us to the Father, and then remaining with us, daily feeding us with his flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine. He places himself, as Cardinal Ratzinger says, 'in our hands and in our hearts'. We praise him and sing to our God a joyful hymn, marvelling 'that such a thing could be.'

And yet, as we all know, the doctrine of the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharistic bread and wine has been a stumbling block in the faith of many who would otherwise wish to be Christians. And it was so from the very beginning, from the moment Jesus first taught it in the synagogue at Capernaum. People have always murmured and revolted against it - that such a thing could be.

Since then the murmurs have continued down the centuries to our very day: This is not the way we want our God to be, humble and near to us, in a mystery of presence so embarrassingly intimate - we want him great and far away.

Cardinal Ratzinger identifies a number of objections to Catholic teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist but let us look at just the first. He puts it this way: Does the Bible actually say anything like that? Does it present us with this or is it just the naive misunderstanding of a later age .. ?'

In the 16th Century the dispute which raged was over the meaning of the word is in the phrases: this is my Body ... this is my Blood.

Are we to understand the word is as referring to a true bodily presence or is Jesus merely using an image which should be understood as: this stands for my Body and Blood?

Scholars have debated this point down through the ages until they realised that to debate the meaning of a word outside it's context is ultimately a waste of time. Just as a note of music gains its significance only from its place in the symphony as a whole, so this pivotal word is must be looked at from within its place in the context in which it is used. When we do this we can see that the Bible gives a perfectly clear answer.

The sixth chapter of St John's Gospel is a clear and explicit teaching on the Eucharist. Jesus introduces the doctrine in words which can hardly be said to be ambiguous. That's precisely why the Jews got so upset - it was so clear! They understood perfectly what Jesus was saying. He was asking them to eat his flesh and drink his blood and this thought was not only repugnant to their (and our) human sensibility but it was also dead against the Law of God - and Jesus knew it.

His listeners objected a number of times but Jesus took no account of their objections. If you are going to teach something teach it; put it out there and then let your listeners deal with it.

There was no way Jesus could have made this teaching more acceptable to them and, besides, like all his teachings, this one, God's teaching, is not susceptible to human criticism.

Jesus had already told them: This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent. (Jn 6:29) He was not asking them to grasp the hows and whys .. he was asking them to believe in the one on whom the Father, God himself, has set his seal. (Jn 6:27)

It was a moment of high drama: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you ... my flesh is food indeed.

How easily Jesus could have pacified them if his words had only been metaphors or figures of speech! But they weren't, and they aren't, and so he didn't. He held his ground: If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever.

The Jews could not believe, it was possible. How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

Next week we will see them walk away. How disastrous for them! But that's how it is, isn't it? Refusal to believe is always a walking away but, and let's be clear about this, it is a walking away which does not invalidate the truth.

The Jews walked away from the teaching on Holy Communion because they understood. Sometimes I think many people today ask to have their children baptised and confirmed and have them do their first Confession and Communion because they don't understand.


If Jesus' words are, as Peter affirmed, words of life, then simple logic points out the direction of this walking away and its ultimate destination - and it
is not towards heaven.

Jesus came to us in a body because we live in a body. We are not angels but humans and so we have a bodily existence. What Jesus did in the synagogue of Capernaum was to assure us that he would give us bodily food, real food, which we were going to have to eat, like all real food. This food would give life to us, body and soul. It would give us eternal life, body and soul.

If the bread and wine of the Eucharist remain just bread and wine they are not the Body and Blood of our Redeemer and so they cannot give life.

St Augustine struggled with these questions during his conversion and one day was granted a vision in which a voice said to him: I am the bread of the strong, eat me! But you will not transform me and make me part of you; rather, I will transform you and make you part of me.

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