The Miracle of the Loaves & Fishes

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

This week we begin to look at the sixth chapter of John; a chapter every Catholic should be familiar with because of its culmination in the great “Bread of Life” Eucharistic discourse. But before Jesus teaches his followers that he is the bread from heaven they must eat to gain eternal life, he first feeds them with ordinary bread which he gives to them in a very extraordinary way. It is the extraordinary way in which Jesus feeds the multitude in this Sunday’s gospel that I want to focus on.

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To Be Close to Jesus

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

(Corpus Christi)

For the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I share with you a transcript of the homily I preached one month ago for my daughter’s First Holy Communion. If you prefer, you may listen to it here.

When I was in high school I had a part time job working in a warehouse. It was good work for a teenager, but it was boring work. Not that boring is bad. Now if you are a parent, like me, your child has come up to you at some point and said, “I’m bored!” And, if you are like me, you’ve probably responded by giving your child a list of possible chores they could be doing. “Clean your room. Unload the dishwasher. Put away the laundry.” Of course they don’t want to do those things. We don’t either! When a child complains about being bored, they are not looking for work to do. They are looking for games to play, for secrets to discover, for wilderness to explore.

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The Indwelling of the Body

Solemnity of the Body & Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)

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Last Sunday the Church celebrated the great solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. On that day above all others we meditate upon the mystery of the inner life of God revealed to us in Christ; that the one eternal God exists as a community of three Persons. Divinity is Trinity in Unity. It is impossible for us, with our finite human minds, to fully understand what this communal life of God must be like, but theologians tell us that the three divine Persons are so united in love that they actually dwell within one another.
The Father lives in the Son and in the Spirit. The Son lives within the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit lives within the Father and the Son. Where any one of them are, there is the whole united Godhead. We cannot imagine what being inside another person must be like, although true romantic love can inspire in us something like a desire to dwell within our beloved. But even if we could imagine living inside of another person, that’s only part of the equation. In the Trinity, the Person you are dwelling inside of also dwells in you. To live inside of someone who is also inside of you is impossible, right?
But something like the mutual indwelling of the Trinity is what God calls us to. On the night before He was to suffer, Jesus prayed to the Father “that they may all be one, just as You are in Me and I am in You” (Jn 17:21). He doesn’t say “with me,” but You are in me and I am in You. Christ wants us to have that same sort of indwelling unity. We may think that this is impossible — but all things are possible with God.
This Sunday, we celebrate the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, also called Corpus Christi. It is the day that the Church celebrates in a special way the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The gospel reading for the feast of Corpus Christi comes from John chapter 6, from what is called Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse. In it, Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:56). Jesus uses the same sort of language here as He does to describe His relationship to the Father.  You are in me and I am in You.

The Eucharist is not the only thing we refer to as the Body of Christ. We also use that term to refer to the Church. And just as with the Eucharist, we do not use the term metaphorically. The Catholic Church is, in a real and substantial way, the Body of Christ. The Church is the continuation of the Incarnation here on earth. When you are baptized into the Church, you are baptized into Christ’s body. You become a part of His Body. Jesus is the head. We are the members. As St. Paul says in the second reading, “We, though many, are one body” (1 Cor 10:17).

Now think about what happens when you receive the Eucharist. It may look like you are just receiving a little piece of bread and a little sip of wine that a man in fancy robes said some nice words over. But we know it is more than that. We know that the bread and wine is not ordinary food and drink, but the Flesh and Blood of the Son of God who became flesh for us.

So now we, who dwell within Christ’s Body by grace of our baptism, are now able to receive Christ’s Body within us by the grace of the Eucharist. We dwell within Christ at the same time that Christ dwells within us. You are in Me and I am in You.

As Catholics, we know that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. We know that the bread and wine, once consecrated, become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is a miracle, and more than we deserve. But for Jesus, it isn’t enough. Jesus does not stop at giving us His Body and Blood. He gives us His divinity. He gives us, in the Eucharist, a taste of the Trinity. He draws us into the life of God, a community of Persons dwelling within one another in an eternal communion of Love.

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To Whom Shall We Go?

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I think it would be rather nifty to have my own coat of arms.  Below those arms would be an escroll emblazoned with my motto: Domine ad quem ibimus?  That is the Latin for “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

It may seem strange to want to have a question for a motto.  Most of the time we think of heraldic mottos as something aggressive or affirming.  My grandmother’s family were Armstrongs, and the motto of that Scottish border clan is Invictus Maneo, or “I remain unvanquished!”  It is typical for a motto to be a strong, affirmative statement.  So why a question?

It is because I think this just may be one of the most important questions any of us could ever consider.  To me, it ranks up there with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” which Jesus asks the disciples (Mt 16:15).  That is a vitally important question.  Each of us must make up our minds about who we believe Jesus to be.  As I wrote in my reflection last week, Christ is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Divine Son of God.  And if He is the Divine Son of God, then we really ought to be paying close attention to what He has to say.

I think that Peter’s question in today’s reading is just as important, especially considered in context.  If you recall  the past few Sunday’s readings, Jesus has been preaching quite emphatically that to have eternal life we must eat His body and drink His blood.  A gruesome thought!  Jesus persists in reiterating that His flesh is true food and His blood true drink, using words like “Amen, amen,” or “verily, verily,” or “truly, truly” (depending on the translation you read).  It is painfully clear that Jesus means what He says and wants us to understand how important this teaching is.

But the disciples who heard Jesus preach said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” The gospel tells us that “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6:66).  They abandon Jesus because they could not accept what He was telling them.  All but the twelve.  (Or more accurately, the eleven.  Judas decides to betray Jesus at this time (Jn 6:71), though he remains with the Apostles).

Jesus asks the Apostles if they, too, will leave.  But  Peter answers for them all by simply saying, “Lord, to whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God.”

I love Peter’s answer for how it expresses both the weakness of human understanding and the strength of faith.  You can tell by these words that Peter has no better understanding of what Jesus means by “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” than any of the other disciples who chose to abandon Christ. But while Peter doesn’t understand the meaning of Jesus’ words, he knows Jesus.  The difference between him and those who walked away is that Peter trusts Jesus.  He has faith.

The Catechism teaches us that faith is both a gift from God (CCC 153) and also a human act (CCC 154).  Faith can be described as a wonderful cooperation of the human intellect and the Divine will.   But sometimes our intellect and our wills can fail us.  Sometimes we may encounter difficulties in our faith.  Many Christians, especially those of a college age who are starting to come to an adult appreciation of the faith, will experience doubt — or what they call doubt.

It is helpful to clarify the difference between true doubt and a difficulty in belief.  A difficulty is a question or a struggle to accept something.  The willingness is there, but the understanding is lacking.  A true doubt, however, is a more cynical denial of the faith.  Think of it as the difference between saying, How can this be so? and This cannot be so!  Blessed John Henry Newman once said, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

It is typical to experience difficulties in your faith on occasion.  This can be a good sign that you are examining your faith and taking it seriously.  Even I must admit that from time to time, when I am praying or engaged in spiritual reading, the thought will pop uninvited into my head, “What if none of it is real?

Rather than run away from the question, I prefer to tackle it head on.  What if none of it is real?  What if Jesus was a fraud?  What if the Apostles and martyrs were wrong?  What if the scriptures are just a bunch of ancient folklore?  What if there is no heaven, no hell, no God?  Considering these questions, I can easily imagine the face of Christ looking down at me: Do you also want to leave?

It is then that Peter’s question becomes so important.  “Lord, to whom would we go?”  If none of this is real, then what else is there?  If there is no God, no judgment, no heaven or hell, then what does it matter if I am good or evil?  What does it matter if I love or hate?  All that I could hope for would be to wring as much selfish pleasure out of my time on this earth as possible.

What if this physical world is the only world there is?  What if there were no spiritual goods?  No virtues, no vices, no such things as faith, hope or love?  Then what would all of our human struggling amount to?  What would there be left to strive for?  And what sense would it all make?

If Christianity is false, then to whom would we go?  There would be no one.

Christianity teaches us our proper place in the universe — that we are not the highest beings, but we are created beings, made by an all powerful and transcendent God.  Christianity tells us that that God loves us — not only as an anonymous whole but each of us personally.  Only Christianity tells us that God loves us so much that He entered into this creation and took on our very nature, so that He might live with us, suffer and die for us, and rise from the dead to bring us to eternal life with Him.

People don’t reject Christianity because it is false.  People reject it because it is too good to be true.

Our God loves us so much that He gives us Himself to consume.  The same God who became man becomes food for us at each and every Mass, so that He may be one with us and we with Him.  You have an invitation to this feast.  Do you also want to leave?  Or will you say, with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You are the Holy One of God.  In light of your goodness, there is no one else I can follow.  There is no place else I can be.”

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Food for the journey

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Fans of Lord of the Rings will be familiar with Lembas bread, also known as elven waybread, the special bread given to the Fellowship of the Ring by the elves to sustain them on their journey. It was said to be more strengthening than any food made by man.

J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, steeped in the scriptures and Catholic history, so it is no wonder that the supernatural and life-giving bread he created should have Biblical precedence.  In our first reading from Mass this Sunday (1 Kg 19:4-8) the prophet Elijah journeys but a single day into the desert before he collapses, exhausted.  After he eats bread given to him by an angel of God, however, he regains enough strength not only to travel another day, but forty more days to Mount Horeb.

One of the major characteristics of the Catholic faith is the very physical nature of much of what we do and believe.  We see this in Elijah’s story today.  When Elijah is exhausted in the desert, God sends him an angel, not to simply tell him to persist in faith, but to give him bread and water.  In this way both his body and his spirit are sustained.

God made man as both a physical and spiritual being.  Our great hope is that after the resurrection of the dead we may exist as God made us to be, body and soul, in the new heaven and new earth.  Since God made us as both physical and spiritual beings, it should not surprise us that God relates to us in both physical and spiritual ways.

This is the great beauty of the sacraments; that in each one God communicates His grace to us via a physical sign.  With baptism that sign is water; with confirmation it is holy oils; with marriage it is husband and wife, and so forth.  But there is one sacrament where God communicates Himself to us in such a special way that we simply refer to it as the Blessed Sacrament.  I speak of the Eucharist.

Under the species of bread and wine, those who receive the Eucharist receive the full Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.  We bring ordinary bread and wine to the altar where it is blessed by the hands of a priest, who repeats the words of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.  “This is my body, which is given up for you,” and “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant.”

Writing to the Emperor of Rome in the mid-second century, St. Justin Martyr explains what the Eucharist means to the Christian people.

This food we call the Eucharist, and no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that our doctrines are true, who has been washed with the bath for the remission of sins and rebirth [baptism], and who is living as Christ commanded.  We do not receive these as common bread and drink.  For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.  Likewise, we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of His word — and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed — is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology 65-66).

Out of all the sacraments, the Eucharist alone is called The Sacrament because it most perfectly reflects the sacramental nature of Christ Himself.  In Jesus Christ, the Divine Logos became incarnate.  That word — incarnate — which we profess in our creed, simply means “enfleshed.”  He took on flesh in order to communicate Himself to us.  The Eucharist is the extension of the Incarnation, in which Christ becomes not only flesh and blood, but flesh and blood that we can ourselves consume.

God desires to nourish both our bodies and spirits.  Moreover He desires to commune with us most intimately, to make His dwelling with us.  The Eucharist is how this is achieved.

Lembas Bread

The angelic bread given to Elijah, the manna in the desert; these were but signs of the true bread from heaven Christ offers.  Jesus is blunt about it in our reading today.  “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died.”  It sustained them, but only for a while.  The manna was the shadow.  What Jesus offers is the substance.  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).

In The Lord of the Rings, Lembas bread was a sign of goodness and holiness.  It was offensive to those who were corrupted by evil (Gollum refuses to eat it).  Likewise, we are taught by the Church to prepare ourselves to receive the Eucharist by remaining in a state of grace, participating in sacramental reconciliation (confession) if we have committed mortal sin, and fasting for at least an hour before we receive.  As St. Justin said above, “we do not receive these as common bread and drink.”  St. Justin says the Eucharist not only nourishes us, but changes us.  “You are what you eat,” as they say.  When we consume the Eucharist we consume goodness, purity and sanctity.  We consume love.

Like elven waybread, the Eucharist is food for the journey — in this case, our journey through this life and into the life to come.  Nothing else will do to give us strength into eternity but He Who is the Living Bread.

“There is no surer pledge or dearer sign of this great hope in the new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells, than the Eucharist.  Every time this mystery is celebrated, the work of our redemption is carried on and we break the one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live forever in Jesus Christ” (CCC 1405).

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