Sunday, July 29, 2012

Homily for 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
17th Sunday
in Ordinary Time
July 29, 2012
John 6: 1-15
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted” (John 6: 11).
From the Book of Hours of the Duc du Berry, ca. 1413

Altho we’re reading from the Gospel of St. Mark during this liturgical year—from what’s labeled as the “B” cycle of readings—you may have noticed that our gospel this morning is from St. John.  It’s kind of like, “We interrupt this program to bring you an important news bulletin.”

Not that Mark’s Gospel isn’t important!  But 2 factors are at work here.  1st, Mark’s Gospel is rather short, so that we don’t need the whole of Ordinary Time (roughly 32 Sundays) to hear most of it.  2d, John’s Gospel isn’t assigned to one of our 3 cycles of Sunday readings; he’s read during the Lent and Easter seasons—and for 5 weeks during Mark’s year, i.e., starting today, specifically from John 6, which is all about Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Last week, you may remember, Mark told us how Jesus took the apostles away for some R&R—or he wanted to.  But a huge crowd beat them to their destination, hungry for Jesus’ attention—his teaching and his healing.  And, Mark says, “he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34):  lost, directionless, imperiled.  “And he began to teach them many things” (6:34), that gospel reading concluded.

From there Mark goes on to recount how Jesus fed the huge crowd, which he, like St. John today, numbers at 5,000 men without counting women and children—by multiplying 5 loaves and 2 fish.  But we’ve switched to John’s account of that, which reports some details not found in Mark’s version (or Matthew’s or Luke’s, for that matter).  This is the only one of Jesus’ miracles reported by all 4 gospels.  It’s that important!

One detail that John mentions is that this multiplication took place “near the Jewish feast of Passover” (6:4).  Thus he links the bread that Jesus supplies with Passover, which uses unleavened bread in remembrance of the Hebrews’ hasty departure from Egypt many centuries earlier.  Theologically we view yeast in some sense as corruptive; St. Paul, for instance, writes, “Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough…. Let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7-8).  Jesus is a new, unleavened bread, without any corruption, and our celebrating the feast of the Eucharist with him leavens us with his truth, presents us with salvation, inaugurates the resurrection of the dead, which will be the final triumph over earthly corruption.

The loaves that Jesus multiplies are symbols of the Eucharist—not only because they’re bread and the Eucharist is bread transformed into the Body of Christ; but also because the Gospels use Eucharistic language when they tell us that Jesus took the bread, gave thanks (or “blessed” it), broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to distribute (Mark 6:41, Matt 14:19, Luke 9:16, and John 6:11), altho John omits “breaking.”  Those are the very same 4 verbs—took, blessed, broke, and gave—that we use at the consecration of every Mass as we remember what Jesus did at the Last Supper:  “On the night he was betrayed, he himself took bread, and giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying….” (EP III).  The Greek word for “give thanks,” moreover, is eucharisteo, “Eucharist.”  At the Eucharist we imitate what Jesus did on this occasion of multiplying loaves and fish.  We don’t imitate what he did at the Last Supper, however, because when we do in his memory what he did, HE is actually the one doing, and we become sharers, partakers, of what he did at the Last Supper as well as what he did on Calvary and what he did when he abandoned the tomb and returned to his heavenly Father.

Truly, in the Eucharist we celebrate Christ’s Passover, his death and resurrection.  We celebrate our delivery from bondage—not in “the hard labor of bricks and mortar and all kinds of field work,” as the book of Exodus says of the Hebrews in Egypt (1:14)—but from bondage to our sins and the punishment that our sins merit.  Jesus’ Passover is offered also to us; in the Eucharist we join him on his journey from death to life and to the freedom of God’s children.

Another detail in John’s version that’s a little different from the reporting of Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke, of this event is that John has Jesus himself distributing the multiplied loaves to the crowd.  The 3 tell us that Jesus gave the loaves to the disciples to distribute, but John reserves that to Jesus himself:  “Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them” (6:11).  That may be unlikely, historically, for 5,000 men, plus women and children.  But John makes a theological point that our nourishment, our salvation, and of course the Eucharist, comes ultimately from Jesus.  It is he, and not the priest, not the bishop, not the Church itself, that saves us; clergy and sacraments and the Church are only the means Jesus uses.

I’ll mention one other unique part of John’s story.  “When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world,’” and they were about to acclaim him as king (6:14-15) and, presumably, start some sort of uprising against either Herod or even Rome.  The “prophet” is a messianic reference; Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, as all the signs he performs, to use John’s language, indicate.  But he’s not the kind of Messiah the people are expecting.  He’s not going to save them from political oppression.  As he’ll tell Pontius Pilate during his trial, his “kingdom is not of this world” (18:36).  His kingdom is spiritual:  a kingdom of truth, a kingdom of interior liberation, a kingdom in which people belong to God and freely act in God, and not as the Roman emperor may command them to act, nor any other earthly power.  Those who belong to his kingdom are set free also from Satan’s rule:  from their sins and from everlasting death.  Jesus will speak more about that as we continue to read from John 6 in the next 4 weeks.
Mosaic from floor of St. Peter's house in Capernaum. Photo by Bro. Tom Dion.

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