More than Meets the Eye (and Stomach)
We are now coming to the end of the Johannine summer interlude to our usual Cycle B readings from the Gospel of Mark that includes the “Bread of Life” discourses. For the last month, beginning with the narrative of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, we have been hearing Jesus speak about bread, leading up to what we hear today, how he is “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” (John 6).
Earlier this week I was talking with a friend about how I wasn’t sure how to approach preparing my homily for the weekend because it seems that you can only say so much about the Bread of Life and that I wasn’t particularly excited about still having to preach on John’s Gospel when I wanted Mark to return to the lectionary. Her response was one of both empathy and wry theological humor: “Yeah, I guess I can see how the Bread of Life discourses can get a little stale after a while!”
Bad though the joke may be, it got me thinking about how true it is that we can let things so familiar bore us, becomes objects or beliefs we take for granted, turn out to be subjects we’d just as well not address because we think it’s “all been done before.” This is how I was approaching this week’s readings. I felt like the temptation to fall into some predictable homily on the Eucharist was unavoidable.
But then the Spirit is still full of surprises.
Take for instance the wisdom that comes to us from the Book of Proverbs in the First Reading (Proverbs 9:1-6). Throughout the Hebrew Bible references to wisdom (hochma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek) are symbols of divine immanence, allusions to the God who draws near to creation. In this passage, Wisdom is personified and calls out to us:
“Let whoever is simple turn in here;
To the one who lacks understanding, she says,
Come, eat of my food,
and drink of the wine I have mixed!
Forsake foolishness that you may live;
advance in the way of understanding.”
This is an invitation for us to dine at the table of the Lord and become what we eat! We forsake the worldly foolishness and live imbued with the Wisdom of the Lord.
Jesus’s teaching about the Bread of Life picks up on a similar theme, but expands it such that what we are called to eat and drink is the sacramental presence of Christ himself (John 6:51-58).
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
We are again called to become what we eat, but this time it is not Wisdom; it is the Body of Christ!
The Catholic Church teaches that Christ is made present in the celebration of the Eucharist, not just in the Eucharistic Species of bread and wine (though these certainly and firstly), but also in the Word of God (the scriptures) and in the Assembly and Presider! “He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them'” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7).
Perhaps there is no greater teacher on this subject than St. Augustine who, in his wisdom and eloquence, preached to catechumens about what is happening in the celebration of the Eucharist more than sixteen centuries ago.
My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! (Sermon 272)
Augustine exclaims that what we celebrate is far more than what meets the eye (simple bread and wine) and far more than what meets the stomach (the presence of Christ in the eucharistic species). Indeed, we say amen not just to our belief in the True Presence in bread and wine, but we say amen also to the recognition that we are also the body of Christ!
He continues: “When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are” (Sermon 272).
This is not just poetic or ‘cute’ language, this is the profound truth of our faith, which was taught by St. Paul through St. Augustine through the Second Vatican Council and today.
What it means to be the Body of Christ by virtue of our Baptism and communion with Christ and one another in the Eucharist is profound. And it is not without implications for our everyday living.
If we approach the Eucharist and respond “Amen” to the proclamation of “The Body of Christ,” we are affirming our responsibility for living our Gospel vocation to follow in the footprints of Jesus Christ. We are affirming the duty we have to care for each other and the rest of creation. We are affirming that we are willing to live up to the name we have received as Christians, acting in service of others in the way that Jesus himself did — loving, forgiving, healing, embracing, reconciling.
There are many ways we can put this faith into action, living as the Body of Christ in the world. One important way is by listening to the teaching of Pope Francis who called for the church to renew its commitment to one another and all of creation according to what he calls an “integral ecology” (Laudato Si). Pope Francis highlights the deeply connected relationship between the experiences of the global poor and the environmental crises of our day. We are called, as the Body of Christ, to hear both the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
How can we claim to be the Body of Christ, to say “Amen” at communion, if we do not say amen and respond to our sisters and brothers in need? If we do not say amen and respond to the rest of creation?
We are indeed called to become what we eat, true members of the Body of Christ. May that vocation never become stale for us!