Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Bread that I shall give is my Flesh

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

One of the greatest challenges to a preacher is to sustain and string together a series of homilies based on the various excerpts taken from Chapter 6 of the Fourth Gospel, which we have been consecutively hearing for the past few weeks. At first glance, there seems to be repetition and nothing new to add, which of course, creates a predicament for us preachers, who have to struggle with looking for some novel theme to expand and expound. Sometimes it really feels as if we are looking for a needle in a haystack. But any careful and prayerful reading of the text would soon reveal that the passage is anything but repetitive. There is, of course, the recurring themes, of the Bread of Life, but there is also progression and development, with each passage taking us deeper into the mystery of this sacramental language; and thus, each week we are provided with another layer of understanding the mystery of the Eucharist.

At the beginning of the discourse on the Bread of Life in verse 30, the Jews had asked our Lord what sign He could perform so that they might believe in Him. As a challenge, they noted that “our ancestors ate manna in the desert.” Could Jesus top that? He told them the real bread from heaven comes from the Father. “Give us this bread always,” they responded just like the Samaritan woman at the well when our Lord told her of the living water that will forever quench her thirst. Here, our Lord replies with another “I am” statement, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” At this point the Jews understood Him to be speaking metaphorically. 

But in today’s passage, our Lord first repeated what He said, then went on to expand it by adding an additional element: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my FLESH, for the life of the world.” The Jews then asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  His listeners were stupefied because now they understood Jesus literally and indeed correctly. You can’t get more literal than this – “the bread that I shall give is my flesh.” He again repeated His words, but with even greater emphasis, and introduced the statement about drinking His blood: “I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I will live in him.” Twelve times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He said they would have “to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” No wonder, many of His own disciples left Him.  But He did not correct these protesters nor did He choose to re-eedit His words.

First, was our Lord speaking metaphorically when He told His disciples that His flesh was real food and that they would need to eat if they wish to possess eternal life? The issue plaguing the Lord’s disciples two thousand years ago, continues to be a stumbling block for Protestants to accept our Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. They say that in John 6 our Lord was not talking about physical food and drink, but about spiritual food and drink. They claim that when the Lord spoke of Himself as the Bread of Life, He was only speaking metaphorically. Thus, coming to Him is bread, having faith in Him is drink. Thus, eating His flesh and blood was purely figurative and merely means believing in Christ.

But there is a problem with that interpretation. The phrase, “to eat the flesh and drink the blood,” when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating Him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense. The other “I am” statements of the Lord, like “I am the door” and “I am the vine” make sense as metaphors because Christ is like a door—we go to heaven through Him—and He is also like a vine—we get our spiritual sap through him. But Christ takes John 6:35 far beyond symbolism by saying, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (John 6:55).  He continues: “As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me” (John 6:57). The Greek word used for “eats (trogon) is graphically blunt and has the sense of “chewing” or “gnawing.” This is not the language of metaphor.

When trying to explain the Eucharist to the Roman Emperor around 155AD, St. Justin did not mince his words: "For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him . . . is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.” St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was eaten by the beasts in Rome around 107 A.D., also wrote: “The Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ” (To Smyrna 7:1). And then St Cyril of Jerusalem, in a catechetical lecture presented in the mid-300s, said, “Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that, for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm.” (Mystagogic 4:22:9).

What is obviously so “hard” about this saying is that it suggests cannibalism. If our Lord’s words are not meant to be figurative or symbolic, would this suggest that we are cannibals? The disciples were right to be scandalised and horrified by the prospect of cannibalism but they were wrong to identify it with what they were hearing. In fact, one charge the pagan Romans lodged against the Christians was cannibalism. Why? You guessed it. They heard that this sect regularly met to eat human flesh and drink human blood. Did the early Christians say: “wait a minute, it's only a symbol!”? Not at all.

While Holy Communion does involve eating human flesh and blood, it is not true that it is cannibalistic. How so? The Eucharist is life. Cannibals eat what is dead. The Christ whom we consume is alive. He is the Risen Lord, He is Life itself. Our reception of the Eucharist doesn’t destroy or change that in any way. Being alive, His body is still united with His soul. And because Jesus Christ is true God and true man, His divinity and humanity are inseparable.  In partaking of the human aspects of Christ (His body, blood and soul), we also partake of His divine nature. Christ’s risen body is not a resuscitated corpse like that of Lazarus, but an utterly transformed “spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44). Therefore, when a Catholic receives the Eucharist, he is receiving not just flesh but glorified flesh, a resurrected and transfigured “super body” that foreshadows the new reality of a new Heaven and a new earth. Cannibalistic practices don’t do that. Putting all these elements together, we arrive at the Catholic formula: “The Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We all consume our Lord when we receive Him in Holy Communion but it is also true that the Eucharist consumes us. When you eat food, it becomes a part of you. With the Eucharist, however, the opposite happens. We become a part of it, that is, in Holy Communion, we are made a part of the mystical body of Christ. In our Lord’s words, those who eat His flesh and drink His blood abide in Him (Jn. 6.40). The other Sacraments give us grace, the Holy Eucharist gives us not only grace but the Author of all grace, Jesus, God and Man. It is the center of all else the Church has and does.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Our Bodies are destined for Heaven

Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady

In one of only two dogmas ever declared infallible by the pope, Venerable Pope Pius XII definitively taught a reality of faith that slowly became better understood after centuries of theological reflexion and liturgical celebration: “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Though this dogma is the most recent, only defined and promulgated in the year 1950 (thus considered to be a modern dogma by Church standards), it is the oldest feast day of Our Lady, but we don't know how it first came to be celebrated. Its origin is lost in those days when Jerusalem was restored as a sacred city, at the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 285-337). For two centuries, every memory of Jesus was obliterated from the city, and the sites made holy by His life, death and Resurrection became pagan temples.

After building the holiest monument in Christendom, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (marking the place of both our Lord’s execution as well as His entombment) in 336, other sacred sites began to be restored and memories of the life of Our Lord began to be celebrated by the people of Jerusalem. One of the memories about His mother centered around the “Tomb of Mary,” close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived. On the hill itself was the “Place of Dormition,” the spot of Mary's “falling asleep,” where she had died. The tomb of Mary was where she was buried but the tomb, like the Holy Sepulchre, is empty. Testimony of her Assumption. Today, we have two churches reputed to mark the spot, the Catholic Abbey Church of Dormition on Mount Zion and the Orthodox Shrine of the Tomb of the Theotokos at the foothill of Mount Olivet. Take your pick. But I’m partial to the Catholic shrine, not because it’s Catholic, but because of the testimony of tradition (Mount Zion).

All the feast days of the Blessed Virgin Mary mark the great mysteries of her life and her part in the work of redemption. But the feast we celebrate today is the crowning feast. A trophy, not one won by our Lady but by God Himself. The Assumption completes God's work in her since it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to God Himself should ever undergo corruption. The Assumption is God's crowning of His work as the Blessed Virgin ends her earthly life and enters eternity. The feast turns our eyes in that direction, where we hope to follow when our earthly life is over. The feast of the Assumption reminds us that our common human experiences are oriented in the same direction Mary took, eternal life in Heaven. This life, with all its ups and downs, is not the end of all. Today’s feast showcases the ultimate promise of our Lord that earthly experiences are not the end.

This feast teaches us that our bodies are ultimately destined for heaven — not just our souls. Our bodies will rise again to be reunited with our souls eternally. Hence this is the reason why the Church has always had great reverence for the human body, shown in a particular way by how she has cared for the bodies of deceased Christians by reverently burying them in anticipation of the resurrection on the last day. In the midst of a pagan culture that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body — a culture that thought the Catholic claim that Jesus rose from the dead was absolutely absurd — and cremated their loved ones, the Christians buried their dead full-body style in anticipation of the resurrection of the body. They would mark their gravesites with Christian inscriptions like RIP, requiescat in pace, “the body is resting here in peace,” resting until the resurrection, or depositus in pace, “this body is placed here in peace.” So the first Christians used this expression and the word “deposit” to communicate that this body was being placed in the ground only for a certain length of time — until when? — until Our Lord Himself came with the withdrawal slip for the universal resurrection.

Unfortunately, today we live in a neo-pagan culture that, as with their pagan ancestors, is beginning to cremate their loved ones more and more. This is a culture that no longer, practically-speaking, believes in the resurrection of the body, and very often, even takes our Lord’s resurrection for granted. As St. Paul says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” In other words, if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, and if there is no resurrection from the dead, then let’s just throw the bodies into the nearest drain!

The devout Jewish women, who believed in the resurrection of the body, anointed Jesus’ in preparation for resurrection. If Jesus had been handled by pagan women, or if the Roman pagan soldiers had gotten hold of Him, He would most likely have been cremated. Imagine that! When the Lord would have been resurrected, everybody would have thought he were simply a ghost, and there would have been no way to prove otherwise, because there would have been no empty tomb and the urn in which he might have been placed after cremation, might just have been emptied in some other way. Likewise, if Our Lady had not been placed full-bodied in her tomb, but rather cremated, then the Tomb of Mary is a hoax, we might as well go home now. There’s nothing to celebrate. The bodily Assumption of Our Lady did not take place! The Church lied to you! 

In extreme circumstances, the Church permits cremation, as long as it is not an explicit denial of the resurrection of the body, but only “in extreme circumstances.” Cremation is always an exception. It is never the norm. Since the Church began to permit this “in extreme circumstances,” cremation seems to have become normative. This is simply because the person thought that the Church was absolutely fine with this now, or just preferred to be cremated, or simply to save some money — money that, strictly-speaking, most of the time, is not the money needed to put food on the table for example, but money they’d just rather hold onto, because, basically, they don’t see full-body burial for the real Christian value it is. My brothers and sisters in Christ, particularly those among our seniors who might think about these issues more than the younger ones would: if you’re thinking about being cremated for anything other than extreme circumstances, please reconsider. If you have the means, go and buy a plot. Show by your choice here that you choose the truth, that your body will be raised from the dead by the Lord, that you choose to die in the Lord and be buried in the Lord following His lead of being buried full-body style — and show to a world that accepts these truths less and less today, that you are a Christian in life and in death. If you have the means!

At every Mass, we receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Here, we literally receive Our Lord’s risen body! Not a symbol of His body, but His real body and blood, risen from the dead. This is a real foretaste of heaven. Those who eat this body and drink this blood live in Him and He in them. This is the same flesh He took from the Blessed Mother, whose body now also reigns in heaven. Taking the Lord’s sacred body and blood within us, we may become more and more like Him. And if we wish to know how that looks like, Saint John Paul II tells us that “by looking at [Mary], the Christian learns to discover the value of his own body” (address, July 9, 1997). Mary, glorified in body and soul, show us who we are and what we are to become!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Happy People are Grateful People

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

You may have never heard of Leo Tolstoy or read his book ‘Anna Karenina’, but you may have heard of the Anna Karenina Principle popularised by various authors, which is actually Tolstoy’s opening line for his book: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In other words, in order to be happy, a family must be successful on each and every one of a range of criteria e.g.: sexual attraction, money issues, parenting, religion, in-laws. A tall order, right? Which explains, if Tolstoy was right, why we have more unhappy than happy families. Failure on only one of these counts leads to unhappiness. In the context of today’s readings and to paraphrase Tolstoy, we can say, “all unhappy people are unhappy in their own way, because they have chosen to be unhappy.”

If someone were to ask you this question, “Are you happy?” What would your answer be? Generally, many would hide behind a fake grin and offer an insincere answer. But to our closest confidantes, that may be the trigger to unload our discontent, our frustrations, and our complaints about anyone or anything that doesn’t seem to measure up to our standard of perfection. After that tiring session of listening to an entire litany of complaints, it’s our turn to unload our grouses on to another. If there is anything common among us is that we love to complain. Complaining, or grumbling, or murmuring (call it what you will) is very infectious, and has the potential to spread from one person to the other, until the entire family, or community, or even parish, becomes a cauldron of discontent.

Everyone battles discontent at different times and in different ways. Some are discontent with their marriage. Others are discontent with their bodies. Many are discontent with their career path. We know of so many who feel discontent with the Church or the parish or its leadership. For every expectation we can have, a discontent is readily available. Because feelings of discontent seem normal, it’s easy to miss how poisonous they are to the human heart, destructive of relationships and finally even drives a wedge between God and us. The lie of discontent is that we deserve to have everything go the way we want – it’s our entitlement.

If you think that complaining is a modern malaise, scripture reminds us that it is as old as Adam and Eve. Right towards the beginning of the Old Testament, we read about Adam and Eve feeling discontent with their lot. Then after God had liberated the Israelites from Egypt where they were oppressed as slaves (a matter which they should be thankful for), we read how they murmured in the desert when they were tired of eating the manna God gave them. They knew exactly what they wanted, and when they didn’t get their feast, the grumbling started. In today’s first reading Elijah is at it too. He’s been doing the will of the Lord day and night, and it has brought him nothing but trouble. He is fed up with his lot and he complains to God out of self-pity. On the verge of giving up, he prays for death. In our Gospel reading, the Jews are complaining again, because they are disturbed by what Jesus has said. The last thing they need is an upstart who is telling them what to do and makes what seem like exaggerated claims.

So what is wrong with complaining? It’s a problem because it leads us to forget who and what we are, and more importantly, leads us to forget where we are heading. Let’s take Elijah as an example. His murmuring against the Lord puts his prophetic vocation on hold. He is tired and fed up, reluctant to accept the cake that God offers him. If we read on in the book of Kings, we discover that at the end of his journey, he experiences the presence of God in the still small voice on mount Horeb. His journey was worth it in the end, but without that food served by the angel of the Lord, he might not have made it. This miraculous food is certainly a foretaste of the Eucharist. For many, life seems unbearable. Can you imagine a worse scenario? Yes, one where we are not fed by the Bread of Life, which not only sustains and provides us with the necessary strength to finish the race and complete our journey.

In the gospel today, the Jews are complaining –they are ‘murmuring’ just like the Israelites in the desert – but they are not complaining about a lack of food. They are complaining that our Lord seems too ordinary, too human perhaps? They know him, they know his family. They murmur because knowing all this makes Jesus’ claim to be the bread from heaven incredible. They think that they have it all figured out. But they are challenged by the Lord. They are convinced that they already possessed the truth and so are unable to accept the message of the Lord which points to eternal life. In their restlessness, they have missed the fact that the Law and the Prophets point towards Jesus, who is God’s offer of eternal life for those who are drawn to Him. But it is hard to appreciate all of this if we are busy grumbling and complaining. Such discontent only leads to death.

Is there an antidote to discontent? Yes. The antidote to discontent is gratitude. Expressing gratitude — being thankful — kills the prideful complaining spirit of discontent. It is no coincidence that the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek εύχαριστία meaning “thanksgiving.” In the celebration of the Eucharist we come together to offer praise and thanks to God primarily for the Paschal Mystery (Christ’s dying and rising for humankind and our incorporation into that mystery through Baptism), but we also give thanks for all that God has done and continues to do for us personally and as members of the Body of Christ. If gratitude is the antidote to discontent, then the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, is the antidote to death, the elixir of immorality.

Gratitude is not a result of our circumstances. Gratitude is a decision and a discipline–not a response. Henri Nouwen, the influential spiritual writer remind us, “The choice for gratitude rarely comes without real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is an Estonian proverb that says: ‘Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.’ Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace.”

Gratitude opens the door to contentment. Grumbling and complaining closes it. If Tolstoy claims that unhappy people are unhappy in their own way, it is because they have each chosen to close the door on contentment in their own way. They can no longer express gratitude. Without gratitude, we feel entitled. Without gratitude, we easily look over the fence for greener grass. Without gratitude, we can only see the faults, failings, imperfections, warts, wrinkles and scars of the other. Without gratitude, our loved ones buckle under the weight of our lofty demands. Without gratitude, life seems like a curse. Without gratitude, it’s impossible to do the will of God. Without gratitude, our celebration of the Eucharist will become bland and lifeless. Gratitude helps us better understand our place in the world. It pushes our praise to those who rightly deserve it, especially God. It causes us to focus on the good things we already have regardless of our present circumstances, regardless of what we lack. As a result, it is the surest pathway to contentment. If gratitude becomes a way of life, then every Eucharistic celebration becomes a gathering of “happy people who are each happy in their own ways,” because they have tasted the true bread from heaven, the bread which guarantees eternal life!