Sunday, August 19, 2012

Homily for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
20th Sunday
of Ordinary Time
Aug. 19, 2012
John 6: 51-58
St. Timothy, Greenwich, Conn.

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6: 56).

Who’s heard of St. John de Brebeuf?

Fr. John de Brebeuf was one of the 8 North American Martyrs, 6 Jesuit priests and 2 lay missioners, killed by the Iroquois in what is now Auriesville, N.Y., and various parts of Ontario  between 1642 and 1649.  The one best know to us Americans is St. Isaac Jogues, who incidentally was the 1st priest to set foot in New York City—which was still New Amsterdam.
Painting of the Jesuit martyrs at the Shrine of the North American Martyrs, Auriesville, N.Y.
Fr. Brebeuf, his mission companion Fr. Gabriel Lalement, and a number of Christian Hurons were captured in an Iroquois attack in 1649 and put to horrible tortures—mutilations, hot coals, “baptism” with boiling water, and more—all of which the 2 priests bore heroically, speaking only to praise God or to encourage their fellow sufferers.  The Indians very much admired such bravery under torture.  It was a tribute of sorts on their part to finish off the missionaries by cutting out their hearts while they were still alive and to eat them, and drink their warm blood.  Thus the Iroquois hoped to imbibe some of the courage that their victims displayed.

I think that cultural anthropologists—I’m not a cultural anthropologist; I’m a historian—would tell us that most cannibalism that has been practiced in the world has been of a ritualistic sort, like what the Iroquois did with Brebeuf’s heart—unlike some modern examples that you may have heard of, like the survivors of an Andean plane crash in 1972 (made into a book and a movie called Alive!), the 1820 crew of the whaling ship Essex sunk in the South Pacific (chronicled by Nathanael Philbrick in a page-turner of a book published in 2000 called In the Heart of the Sea), or the survivors of the Donner party trapped in the snows of the Sierra Nevada on their way to California in 1846.  All these cannibalized their dead comrades to survive; they ate human flesh that they might live.

The Iroquois and others sought something less tangible, more “eternal,” if you will.

And so Jesus speaks today.  What he says today in these 8 verses from John 6 mark a change in what he’s said earlier in the chapter.  As you know, this is the 4th Sunday in which we’ve read from this chapter; and we have 1 more Sunday to go.  In the 1st passage, Jesus multiplied bread and fish to feed a crowd of thousands.  That led us to a long discourse (which we’re reading only a part of in these weeks) in which Jesus identifies himself as the Bread of Life.  In the 1st part of this discourse, he means that his teaching and his example are food for our souls that will nourish us, nourish our relationship with the Father, so as to preserve us for eternity, unlike the Hebrews who ate manna in the desert after Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea and led them to Mt. Sinai to give them the Ten Commandments (I wanted to see whether you’re paying attention), but who perished in the desert before they could reach the Promised Land:  “unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,” Jesus says today (6:58).

But in the 2d part of v. 51, which concluded our gospel reading last week and was repeated this week at the beginning of the reading, we have a transition.  Jesus stops using a metaphor—his word is bread—and comes to what we’ll eventually call a sacrament:  a reality hidden under an outward sign.  That reality is his Body and his Blood—not symbolized as bread and wine, not represented by bread and wine, but transformed (transubstantiated, changed in substance), from bread and wine into his flesh and blood and only appearing to be bread and wine, fooling our senses but not our faith.

The people listening to him understand at once that he really means his own flesh and blood when he says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.  My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (6:53,55).  He’s not speaking metaphorically.  He’s not speaking symbolically.  If they are to come to eternal life, they’ll have to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Of course they don’t realize that he’s speaking of the sacrament of the Eucharist; not even the 12 apostles realized that:  “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:52).  Only at the Last Supper will he reveal the answer to that question to his disciples and to the Church that will be built up by those who do eat his body and drink his blood, who become his body and his blood, who pursue eternal life thru sacramental, ritualistic, spiritual union with him.
Fr. Pascual Chavez and Abp. Alfred Hughes distributing Communion in Westwego, La., in 2007 (photo by Romaguera)
Note that Jesus says 1st, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (6:54); then he says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (6:56).  Eternal life he equates with remaining in him, with a full union with him.  At the Last Supper he’ll pronounce himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Remaining with Jesus, staying with Jesus—isn’t that what we want?  Isn’t that the goal of our lives?  Isn’t that eternal life?

It’s a key theme in John’s Gospel.  When the disciples of John the Baptist 1st go to Jesus, they ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (1:38).  He invites them, “Come and see.”  “So,” John tells us, “they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day” (1:39).  They’re so impressed that they invite others to do the same, to come and see, to listen and to stay with Jesus.

After the wedding at Cana and Jesus’ 1st miracle there, John reports, Jesus “and his mother, his brothers, and his disciples went down to Capernaum and stayed there” (2:12).  I.e., they stayed with him.  When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well and the townspeople come to hear how he has read her soul, they invite “him to stay with them,” and many of them become disciples, recognizing him as “truly the savior of the world” (4:40-42).  At the Last Supper, he tells the apostles, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (14:23).  Using a metaphor of a vine and its branches, he tells them, “Remain in me, as I remain in you….  Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit….  Remain in my love” (15:1-10).

The Eucharist, the Bread of Life, is our invitation to remain in the Lord’s love, to remain in love with the Lord.  The Eucharist nourishes us to practice love, to bear good fruit in our deeds and words.  The Eucharist is our communion with Christ, and thru him with his Father, so that they already dwell in us, and we in them.  This indwelling is already a foretaste of heaven, of that eternal life where we’ll truly remain with Jesus.
Stained glass, St. Mary's Church, Fredericksburg, Va.

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