The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse IV: Choosing the Table of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today we have set before us two tables.  One is the incredibly rich banquet of wisdom, and the other…  let’s call it the fast food of foolishness, I guess.  What we need to ask ourselves today is, at which table have we been eating, and is that where we want to find our nourishment?

We see in today’s first reading the personification of wisdom.  Wisdom is seen as a female character who has made preparations for a luxurious meal.  Meat has been prepared, and that was a luxury in biblical times.  Wine has been mixed, probably with spices to improve its flavor and make it a bit more potent.  But the invitation has gone out not to the rich and powerful, but the simple and those who lack understanding.  These are the ones who are called to the banquet of wisdom to partake of this incredible meal.  They will feast on the rich meat of understanding and be carried away by the potency of the wine of enlightenment.  But coming to that table requires turning away from foolishness, and it is only by doing so and eating at this table that one can live.

The second reading, too, speaks of this choice, but with a tone of warning: be sure to live not as foolish persons but as wise – watch carefully, St. Paul warns, how you live.  He acknowledges that the days in which the Ephesians were living were evil ones, something to which, I think, every generation can relate – no generation ever fails to experience evil in some way at some time.  Certainly we have seen that in the past few weeks with the return of clergy sexual abuse scandals, a sadness and humiliation for all who strive to follow the Gospel in the Catholic Church.  And so, to combat evil, they – and we – are warned to aspire to right conduct.  Certainly, we are unable to fix all the evil in the world on our own, but we can control what goes on in us.  We need to eradicate every source of evil in every aspect of our lives so that evil won’t have a feedbed on which to thrive.

Saint Paul calls us to try to understand the will of God, the project of all our lives.  Don’t live in drunkenness, he warns, whether caused by wine or just by immersing oneself into the foolishness of the world around you.  Instead, we are called to be people of prayer, following God’s will, singing God’s praise, “giving thanks always and for everything.”  The word thanks here is, in Greek, eucharisteo, of course, meaning we are to live as Eucharistic people, aware of God’s blessings, and thankful for the grace we have received.

All of this serves as a fitting prelude to the choice Jesus’ audience is facing in today’s Gospel.  They have been mesmerized by the feeding of the multitudes that we heard about a few weeks ago, as we began our little immersion in the “Bread of Life Discourse” which is the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  And they have been hanging in there as Jesus has unpacked the meaning of that event in the time that has followed.  But now, they have to come to terms with all of it.  Many are repulsed, understandably, I think, at the notion of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of another person.  And so now they have to decide if this is something they can live with.  Next week, in the Gospel, we will see how that shakes out.  But ironically, as we now know, this is something they – and we – cannot live without.

As we come to worship today, we have been dining at one of the other of the tables ourselves.  Have we been dining at the table of foolishness?  Have we tried living by mere human wisdom; put our security and trust in material things; relied on temporary and superficial appearances and even put off feeding our spirits to another time?  Have we surfed the web to find wisdom, and gotten bogged down in the nonsense that lurks there?  Have we glued ourselves to television and hung on the words of politicians or other experts whose expertise is questionable at best, or been lost in the banal world of reality TV?  Those of us who are well educated may have thought book learning would give us answers to life’s imponderables.  Perhaps the results have left us still hungry; like trying to fill our stomachs eating lettuce soup.  We may feel some initial satisfaction, but it soon passes and all we can think of is where we can find food.  We have been dining at the wrong table.

And so wisdom calls out to us simple ones to pull up a chair to the right banquet.  Feasting on the richness of wisdom leads us inevitably to the banquet of the Lord.  Will we be repulsed at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord, or will we set aside the so-called wisdom of the world and embrace the real wisdom of God, which is so far beyond our understanding?  Jesus says to us today that we can become part of God, indeed that is the whole point.  We were created to become part of God’s life, to be caught up in him, and to be part of him.  But the problem is, our dining on the fast food of foolishness, the so-called “wisdom” of this world, has left us sinful and sorrowful, with an emptiness that cannot be filled up in that way.

And so God did the only thing he could do.  If we could not be part of him because of our foolishness, he decided to become part of us.  He sent his son Jesus into our world to walk among us, to live our life, to walk on the earth as we do.  Jesus ultimately gave himself for us, offering his body and blood for our salvation, giving us this great nourishment so that he could become part of us in a similar way to the way all food becomes part of us.  As we dine at the table of the Lord, our God who wanted us to become part of him becomes part of us, and so we are caught up again into his life as we were always supposed to have been.

Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves and two fish a few weeks ago.  But that was nothing.  It was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what he wants to do now.  Now he wants to give himself so that we can be one with him:

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.

People who content themselves in eating the food of this world – even if it’s manna from heaven – will still die.  But those – and only those – who eat the bread that is Jesus will live forever.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  Because it is only by Jesus becoming part of us that we can become part of God, which is the fulfillment of our destiny as creatures of our God.  This is a hard teaching, and we may struggle with it in the same way the crowds struggled with it when Jesus said it.  But this is Truth; this is the wisdom of God; this is the way we get filled up so that we never hunger again.

And so which table will we choose now?  Please God let us follow the Psalmist’s advice: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse III: Bread for the Journey

Today’s readings

You may have heard of Viaticum, which we generally think of as one’s last Communion. Indeed, the Church encourages us by precept of the Church to receive Holy Communion in our last moments, if at all possible.  The word viaticum is Latin for “bread for the journey.”  So in our last moments, when we set out on our journey to the life that is to come, we are fed with that Food that sustains us.  It’s a commendable practice and I highly encourage it.

Today we see the Scriptural basis for viaticum, that bread for the journey.  In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has had just about enough, thank you very much.  Despite some successes in preaching the word of the Lord, he has felt that he is a failure.  Today’s reading comes after Elijah, with God’s help, just defeated all the prophets of the false god Baal in a splendid display of pyrotechnics on Mount Carmel.  It’s a wonderful story that you can find in chapter 18 of the first book of Kings, and your homework today is to go home and look it up!  I promise, you’ll enjoy the story.  Well after that outstanding success, one would expect Elijah to go about boasting of his victory.  Instead, Jezebel, the king’s wife and the one who brought the prophets of Baal to Israel in the first place, pledges to take Elijah’s life.  Today’s story, then, finds him sitting under a scraggly broom tree, which offered little if any shade, and praying for death.  For him it would be better for the Lord to take his life than to die by Jezebel’s henchmen.  The Lord ignores his prayer and instead twice makes him get up and eat bread that God himself provides, so that he would be strengthened for the journey.  In the story that follows, Elijah will come quite face-to-face with God, and be refreshed to go on.  But he can’t do that if he starves to death under the broom tree.  Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for, but exactly what we need.

Our Gospel reading takes us back to Saint John’s “Bread of Life Discourse.”  We usually read from the Gospel of Mark during this liturgical year, but since Mark is shorter than Matthew and Luke, we have a five-week opportunity during the summer to hear John’s Eucharistic Theology beautifully told in the sixth chapter of his Gospel.  We began two weeks ago with the feeding of the multitudes; then last week the multitudes sought Jesus out so they could get more of the same and Jesus sets out to feed their spirits.  At the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus told them that Moses didn’t give them bread from heaven, but rather God did; and then he made a very bold claim: “I am the bread of life.”  So this week, the people are angry with Jesus for that claim, for saying that he came down from heaven.  They murmured because they knew his family, and surmised that he couldn’t have descended from heaven.  They didn’t yet understand the depth of who Jesus was.  They were so hungry that they didn’t realize that the finest spiritual banquet stood right before them.

The thing is, spiritual hunger is something we all face in one way or another.  We all have very difficult journeys to face in our lives.  Whether we’re feeling dejected and defeated like Elijah, or feeling cranky and irritable like the Ephesians, or whether we’re just feeling superior and murmuring like the Jews in today’s Gospel, spiritual hunger is something we all must face sometime in our lives.  From time to time, we all discover in ourselves a hole that we try to fill with something.  Maybe we try to fill that up with alcohol, or too much work, or too much ice cream, or the wrong kind of relationships, or whatever; and eventually we find that none of that fills up the hole in our lives.  Soon we end up sitting under a scraggly old broom tree, wishing that God would take us now.  If we’re honest, we’ve all been at that place at one time or another in our lives.

We disciples know that there is only one thing – or rather one person – that can fill up that emptiness.  And that person is Jesus Christ.  This Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and longs to be our Bread of Life, the only bread that can fill up that God-sized hole in our lives.  We have to let him do that.  But it’s not so easy for us to let God take over and do what he needs to do in us.  We have to turn off the distractions around us, we have to stop trying to fill the hole with other things that never have any hope of satisfying us, and we have to turn to our Lord in trust that only he can give us strength for the journey.  Jesus alone is the bread that came down from heaven, and only those who eat this bread will live forever, forever satisfied, forever strengthened.  It is only this bread that will give us strength for the arduous journeys of our lives.

Because this Food is so important to us, because it is such a great sign of God’s presence in our lives, we should be all the more encouraged to receive the Eucharist frequently and faithfully.  Certainly nothing other than sickness or death should deter us from gathering on Sunday to celebrate with the community and receive our Lord in Holy Communion.  We should all think long and hard before we decide not to bring our families to Sunday Mass.  Sometimes soccer, football, softball and other sports or activities become more important than weekly worship, as if Mass were just one option among many activities from which we may choose.  Or maybe we decide to work at the office or around the house instead of coming to Church on Sunday, a clear violation of the third commandment.  I realize that I may well be preaching to those who already know this, and I realize that it’s hard, especially for families, to get to Church at times, but this is way too important for any of us to miss.  It is Jesus, the Bread of Life, who will lead us to heaven – the goal of all our lives and our most important journey, – and absolutely nothing and no one else will do that.

It all comes down to what we believe.  If we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life, then why on earth would we ever want to miss worship?  If he is the only way to heaven, why would we think to separate ourselves from him?  Our Church teaches us that this is not just a wafer of bread and a sip of wine that we are receiving; we believe that it is the very real presence of our Lord, his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, under the mere appearance of bread and wine.  Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we should never allow anything to take its place.  Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we must return to this Eucharist every week, every day if we are able, acknowledging the great and holy gift that He is to us.

We will come forward in a few minutes to receive this great gift around the Table of the Lord.  As we continue our prayer today, let us remember the advice God gives to Elijah: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse II – What’s Your Hunger?

Today’s readings

My niece Molly used to say that she wanted to open a restaurant when she grows up. She even had a name all picked out for it: “Hungry.”  That makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Where are you going to go when you’re hungry?  Well, to Hungry, of course!  I always think about that when these readings come around because today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to those of us who are hungry – which is to say, all of us.

There’s a lot of hunger in the readings today.  First we have the Israelites, fresh from their escape from slavery in Egypt, finding that they are hungry as they wander through the desert.  I think we can understand their hunger.  But what is hard to understand is the content of their grumbling about it.  They say that they would rather be back in Egypt, eating bread and the meat of the “fleshpots.”  Why on earth did God have to drag them out into the desert only to kill them by hunger and let them die there?  They would rather be in slavery in Egypt than be in the situation in which they find themselves.

Please understand how serious this grumbling is: it is a complete rejection of God, God who has done everything miraculous to save them from abject slavery.  And that slavery was not some kind of minor inconvenience: the people were told to take care of the most strenuous of all labor, building the cities and even making the bricks for them themselves.  If they slacked off at all, or didn’t meet their captors’ unreasonable quotas, they were severely beaten.  They were subject to racism at its nastiest form, and their baby boys were put to death to keep them from rising up.  And yet, the people say they’d rather be in Egypt so they could have a little food in their stomachs.

Not so different is the clamoring of the people in today’s Gospel reading.  Today we pick back up our reflection on the “Bread of Life Discourse,” the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Because Mark’s Gospel, which we are hearing from this liturgical year, is a little shorter than the others, we get five wonderful weeks to take a little journey into John’s Eucharistic theology during these summer days.  We began last week, with the famous story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Today’s story picks up where last week’s left off: the people were so impressed by Jesus feeding so many with so little that they pursue him across the sea to Capernaum.

Why do they follow him?  Well, they want more food, of course.  But the real feeding he intends is not just barley loaves, but instead something a little more enduring.  So Jesus tells them that the best way they can do God’s will is to believe in him – the one God sent.  So they have the audacity to ask him what kind of sign he can do so that they can believe in him.  Can you believe that?  He just finished feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers to distribute to the whole world, proving that he was enough, and more than enough, to feed their hungers, and they stillwant to see a sign?  Instead, Jesus gives them a spiritual sign, a challenge really.  He tells them to believe in him because “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Jesus wants to get to the root cause of their hunger … and ours too, by the way.  So I think the starting point is that we have to be clear about what it is we hunger for.  And that question is very pressing on all of us today.  Every one of us comes here hungering for something.  Our hungers may be very physical: some here may be unemployed or underemployed, or perhaps our hunger is for physical healing of some kind.  But perhaps our hungers are a bit deeper too: a relationship that is going badly, or a sense that we aren’t doing what we should be or want to be doing with our lives.  Our hunger very well may be very spiritual as well: perhaps our relationship with God is not very developed or our prayer life has become stale.  [Very much so for Antoinette, our new catechumen, God has stirred up the hunger in her heart to know him and come to him and to join with us in the Church as we worship him together.]  Whatever the hunger is, we need to be honest and name it right now, in the stillness of our hearts.

Naming that hunger, we then have to do what Jesus encouraged the crowds to do: believe.  Believe that God can feed our deepest hungers, heal our deepest wounds, bind up our brokenness and calm our restless hearts.  Believe that Jesus is, in fact, the Bread of Life, the bread that will never go stale or perish, the bread that will never run out, or disappear like manna in the heat of the day.  Jesus is the Bread that can feed more than our stomachs but also our hearts and souls.  The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.”  And we know that bread is the most wonderful food of all, because it is the Body of Christ. Amen!

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate with great joy one of the most wonderful feasts on our Church calendar, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Through this greatest of all gifts, we have been made one with our God who loves his people beyond all imagining. We experience this love in perhaps one of the most basic ways of our human existence, which is to say by being fed. Learning to satisfy our hunger is one of the first things we learn; we learn who we can depend on and develop close relationships with those people. Today’s feast brings it to a higher level, of course. The hunger we’re talking about is not mere physical hunger, but instead a deep inner yearning, a hunger for wholeness, for relatedness, for intimate union with our God. This is a hunger that we all have, and despite our feeble attempts to do otherwise, it cannot be filled with anything less than God.

What we see in our God is one who has always desired deep union with his people. Salvation began with the creation of the whole world, the saving of Noah and those on the ark, the covenant made with Abraham, the ministry of the prophets, and ultimately culminated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world. God never lost interest in his creation; he didn’t set the world in motion and then back off to leave everything to its own devices. God has time and again intervened in human history, offering us an olive branch, seeking renewal of our relationship with him, and bringing us back no matter how far we have fallen.

God has repeatedly sought to covenant with us. Eucharistic Prayer IV beautifully summarizes God’s desire: “You formed man in your own image and entrusted the whole world to his care, so that in serving you alone, the Creator, he might have dominion over all creatures. And when through disobedience he had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death. For you came in mercy to the aid of all, so that those who seek might find you. Time and again you offered them covenants and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation.” And unlike human covenants, which have to be ratified by both parties, and are useless unless both parties agree, the covenant offered by God is effective on its face. God initiates the covenant, unilaterally, out of love for us. Our hardness of heart, our sinfulness, our constant turning away from the covenant do not nullify that covenant. God’s grace transcends our weakness, God’s jealous love for us and constant pursuit of us is limitless.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word shows us the history of the covenant. The first reading recalls the covenant God made with the Israelites through the ministry of Moses. The people agree to do everything the Lord commanded, and Moses seals the covenant by sprinkling the people with the blood of the sacrifice and saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.” The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews makes the point that if the blood of sacrificed animals can bring people back in relationship with God, how much more could the blood of Christ draw back all those who have strayed. Christ is the mediator of the new covenant, as he himself said in the Gospel: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”

And so we, among the many, benefit from Christ’s blood of the covenant. The preface for the Eucharist Prayer today says, “As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us, we are made strong, and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us, we are washed clean.” God’s desire for covenant with us cannot be stopped by sin or death or the grave because his grace is mightier than all of that.

We disciples are called then to respond to the covenant. Having been recipients of the great grace of God’s love, we are called to live the covenant in our relationships with others. Which isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Sometimes people test our desire to covenant with them; sometimes they don’t even want to be in covenant with us. But the model for our relationships with others is the relationship God has with us. And so sometimes we have to unilaterally extend the covenant, even if the other isn’t willing, or doesn’t know, that we care for them. God wants to offer the covenant to everyone on earth, and he may well be using us to extend the covenant to those he puts in our path.

We do this in so many ways. Here at Notre Dame, one of the important ways we do that is through our food pantry which serves over 60 families each month. Our Food Pantry has the distinction of bringing the food donations to the families, which is so helpful to those who do not have reliable transportation. Over the past months, our food donations have dwindled, and we were hopeful of a large donation from the food drive by the Clarendon Hills Post Office, but it was not as large as we had hoped. During the summer months, food donations tend to dwindle further, although the need for them does not. One way that we can extend the covenant of grace that we have received is to feed the hungry. I would like to invite all of you to bring a bag of food for the poor next week, even though this is not our regular food pantry collection week. It will go a long way to helping needy families through the summer months.

God’s covenant with us is renewed every day, and celebrated every time we come to receive Holy Communion. When we receive the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are renewed in the covenant, strengthened in grace and holiness, and brought nearer to our God who longs for us. We who are so richly graced can do no less than extend the covenant to others, helping them too to know God’s love for them, feeding them physically and spiritually.

The Psalmist asks today, “How shall I make a return to the LORD for all the good he has done for me?” And the answer is given: by taking up the chalice of salvation, drinking of God’s grace, renewing the covenant, and passing it on to others. May the Body and Blood of Christ keep us all safe for eternal life!

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

If you’ve ever travelled abroad, to a country where English is not the spoken language, maybe you’ve had this experience.  I travelled to Mexico when I was in seminary to learn Spanish.  The first day I was there, we went to Mass at the local Cathedral.  Even though at that point my Spanish was pretty sketchy, still I recognized the Mass.  That’s because we celebrate it in the same way, with the same words – albeit in a different language – everywhere on earth.  In the Eucharist, we are one.  “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”  That’s what St. Paul tells the Corinthians today, and we are meant to hear it as well.  We are called to unity with one another as we gather around the Altar to partake of the one Body of Christ.

We may express our unity in many ways in the Mass.  We all sing the same songs.  We all stand or sit together.  We might all join hands at the Lord’s Prayer.  And those are all okay things, but they are not what unites us.  They put us on a somewhat equal footing, but that can happen in all kinds of gatherings.  The one thing that unites us at this gathering, the experience we have here that we don’t have in any other situation, is the Eucharist.  The Eucharist unites us in the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, where all division must necessarily cease.  The Eucharist is the celebration of our unity par excellence.

Having said that, there are obvious ways in which we can notice that we are not, in fact, one.  The Eucharist, which is the celebration of our unity, can often remind us in a very stark and disheartening way, of the ways that we remain divided with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  The most obvious of these ways is the way that we Catholics remain divided with our Protestant brothers and sisters, and in fact, they with each other as well.  The proliferation of Christian denominations is something we can soft-petal as “different strokes for different folks,” but is in fact a rather sad reminder that the Church that Jesus founded and intended to be one is in fact fragmented in ways that it seems can only be overcome by a miracle.  In our Creed we profess a Church that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”  By “catholic” here, we may indeed mean “universal” but that does not, of course, mean that we are in fact one.

Another thing that divides all of us from one another is sin.  Mortal sin separates us not only from God, not only from those we have wronged, but also from the Church and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  When we have sinned greatly, we are not permitted in good conscience to receive the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, because we cannot dare to pretend to be one with those we have separated ourselves from through mortal sin.

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him,” Jesus says to us today.  When we remain in him, we also remain united to one another through Christ.  This is what God wants for his Church, so today we must recommit ourselves to unity, real unity.  So if you have not been to Confession in a while, make it a priority to do that in the next week or so that you can be one with us at the Table of the Lord.  And at Communion today, we must all make it our prayer that the many things that divide us might soon melt away so that we can all become one in the real way the Jesus meant for us.

“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.

On this feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, we pray that every person may one day come to share in the flesh of our Savior, given for the life of the world, and we pray that his great desire might come to pass: that we may be one.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

That is the proper entrance antiphon, also known as the introit, for this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  It is taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he says “May I never boast about anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which I have been crucified to the world and the world to me.” During Lent, we have been rediscovering our need for a Savior.  We have seen how our Lord Jesus Christ completely changes everything if we acknowledge that need.  Our water jugs have been left behind because we are filled with living water; our eyes have been opened to see our Lord, ourselves, and others as we really are; we have been freed from our graves, untied from the bondage of sin.  We have embraced the cross, which our Savior willingly took up out of love for us, and have taken it on ourselves, knowing that it is through the cross that we come to the glory of the resurrection.

The Church teaches us in this Sacred Triduum – this three-day-long Liturgy of God’s love –  that we should indeed glory in the cross – take pleasure in the cross – notice the power of the cross.  And we glory in the cross knowing that our God glories in the cross.  It may seem odd to say that, because why would God glory in an instrument of death that destroyed the human life of his only begotten Son?  But we know that God has made something much more glorious come from the sadness of death, and he did that through the cross on which hung the Savior of the world.  In the cross, we have salvation, life and resurrection!

I think what the cross teaches us in these days, and what this evening’s part of the Triduum Liturgy says in particular, is summed up in the Latin word, caritasCaritas is most often translated into English as either “charity” or “love.”  And, as in the case of most translations, both are inadequate.  When we think about the word “charity,” we usually think of something we do to the poor: we give to the poor, we have pity on the poor, that kind of thing.  And “love” can have a whole host of different meanings, depending on the context, and the emotion involved.  And that’s not what caritas means at all.  I think caritas is best imagined as a love that shows itself in the action of setting oneself aside, pouring oneself out, for the good of others.  It’s a love that remembers that everything is not about me, that God gives us opportunities all the time to give of ourselves on behalf of others, that we were put on this earth to love one another into heaven.

And I bring this up not just as a lesson in Latin or semantics.  I bring it up because caritas is our vocation; we were made to love deeply and to care about something outside ourselves.  We are meant to go beyond what seems expedient and comfortable and easy and to extend ourselves.  That’s clearly what our Lord did, and that’s what we’re supposed to be about as well.

Two parts of this evening’s Liturgy show us what caritas means.  The first is what we call the mandatum: the washing of the feet.  Here, Jesus gets up from the meal, puts on a towel and begins to wash the feet of his disciples.  Here, at the Last Supper, it is our Savior himself who wraps a towel around himself, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.  This was an extraordinary act of charity on the part of our Savior.  We will reenact that Gospel vignette in a few minutes.  But I have tell you, here in Church, this really isn’t the proper place to reenact it.  Rather, this particular ritual should be reenacted outside of church.  Every day, in every place where Christians are.

For example, maybe you make an effort to get home from work a little sooner to help your spouse get dinner ready or help your children with their homework.  Maybe at work you try to get in early so that you can make the first pot of coffee so that people can smell it when they come in to the office.  Or maybe after lunch you take a minute or two to wipe out the microwave so it’s not gross the next day.  If you’re a young person, perhaps you can try on occasion to do a chore without being asked, or at least not asked a second time, or even wash the dishes when it’s not your turn to do it.  Or if one of your classmates has a lot of stuff to bring to school one day, you can offer to carry some of his or her books to lighten the load.

This kind of thing costs us.  It’s not our job.  We’re entitled to be treated well too.  It’s inconvenient.  I’ve had a hard day at work – or at school.  I want to see this show on television.  I’m in the middle of reading the paper.  But caritas requires something of us – something over and above what we may be prepared to do.  As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, he’s given us an example: as he has done, so we must do.  And not just here in church washing each other’s feet, but out there in our world, washing the feet of all those in our lives who need to be loved into heaven.

The second part of our Liturgy that illustrates caritas is one with which we are so familiar, we may most of the time let it pass us by without giving it a thought, sadly.  And that, of course, is the Eucharist.  This evening we commemorate that night when Jesus, for the very first time, shared bread and wine with his closest friends and offered the meal as his very own body and blood, poured out on behalf of the world, given that we might remember, as often as we do it, what caritas means.  This is the meal that we share here tonight, not just as a memory of something that happened in the far distant past, but instead experienced with Jesus and his disciples, and all the church of every time and place, on earth and in heaven, gathered around the same Table of the Lord, nourished by the same body, blood, soul and divinity of our Savior who poured himself out for us in the ultimate act of caritas.

We who eat this meal have to be willing to be changed by it.  Because we too must pour ourselves out for others.  We must feed them with our presence and our love and our understanding even when we would rather not.  We must help them to know Christ’s presence in their lives by the way that we serve them, in humility, giving of ourselves and asking nothing in return.  That is our vocation.

And sometimes that vocation is not an easy one.  Sometimes it feels like our efforts are unappreciated or even thwarted by others.  Sometimes we give of ourselves only to receive pain in return; or we extend ourselves only to find ourselves out on a limb with what seems like no support.  And then we question our vocation, wondering if it is all worth it, wondering if somehow we got it wrong.

The ultimate act of caritas will unfold tomorrow and Saturday night as we look to the cross and keep vigil for the resurrection.  Tonight it will suffice for us to hear the command to go and do likewise, pouring ourselves out for others, laying down our life for them, washing their feet and becoming Eucharist for them.  It may seem difficult to glory in the cross – it may even seem strange to say it.  But the Church makes it clear tonight: the cross is our salvation, it is caritas poured out for us, it is caritas poured out on others through us, every time we extend ourselves, lay down our lives, abandon our sense of entitlement and do what the Gospel demands of us.

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

Today’s feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is an incredible privilege for us to celebrate.  That our God, who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than anything we could ever possibly imagine, would give himself to us, his creatures, so completely that we would have him as our food and drink, sustenance for body and soul, into eternity, is a mystery almost too wonderful to comprehend!  Yet that is what we gather to call to mind this weekend.

In the Gospel reading today, we see just exactly how wonderful a miracle the Eucharist is.  A large crowd has gathered to hang on the words of Jesus, and to see what he might do next.  The disciples, however, become fearful because it is late in the day, and they know they have only a mere five loaves and two fish, and that’s never going to be enough to feed all those people.  They fear, I think, that the crowd may get ugly when they realize there is nothing to eat and it’s too late to go buy anything in the surrounding area.

So they come to Jesus and tell him to cut the homily short and dismiss the crowds so they can run off and get some food.  But Jesus turns it all around on them.  “Give them some food yourselves,” he says.  And I can just imagine the disciples freaking out!  But Jesus knows where this is going and is fully aware of what he intends to do.  So ignoring their lack of faith, he has them bring the meager five loaves and two fish that they do have, and he makes of it a feast that is enough, and actually more than enough, to feed the hungry crowd.

This is a great story and we’re very familiar with it, I’m sure.  But you know how this goes.  The commands of Jesus are never just for those who heard them the first time.  Instead he says the very same thing to us: “Give them some food yourselves.”  His intent is that we who have been fed superabundantly on his own Body and Blood, would go then and be Christ for others, feeding them in ways too wonderful to imagine.  But how would something like that even be possible?

And that’s the reaction I think that some of us have when we are faced with the rather daunting prospect of sharing of our time, talent and treasure.  But that’s exactly what Jesus intends for us to do.  “Give them some food yourselves,” he says, and we are called upon to respond.

Now some of us perhaps don’t share out of selfishness.  I hope that’s not true, but it does happen.  And we know very well what Scripture teaches about that: we have to get over ourselves and remember who gave us what we have in the first place, and be as generous to others as God has been to us.  We are taught that selfishness leads only to unhappiness in this life and eternal unrest in the life to come.  We know this.

But I really think that of those who don’t really give of their time, talent and treasure, it’s because of a belief very similar to what the disciples had in the Gospel today.  I think some of us don’t give of ourselves because we feel like we only have very little to give, kind of like the five loaves and two fish, and how on earth is that even going to be at all helpful in the face of such great need?  Better that we send everyone on their way to fend for themselves as best they can.  But Jesus didn’t accept that from the disciples and he isn’t having any of that from us either.  “Give them some food yourselves.”

Because not offering something – be in an hour or two of time a week or even a month, or a very small percentage of what we earn – because we don’t think it’s enough to do anything very much is tantamount to a lack of faith.  That’s what exasperated Jesus when he saw it in his disciples.  And he wants us to be better than that.  He wants us to see that whatever little bit we can give can become enough, and more than enough, to feed every need we can see, if we entrust it to his hands.

Jesus isn’t asking us to put an end to hunger; he’s asking us to feed one hungry person.  He isn’t asking us to solve the problem of homelessness; he’s asking us to help the youth group build a house in the poverty stricken parts of Jamaica and Kentucky this summer.  He isn’t asking us to single-handedly balance the parish’s budget; he’s asking us to give whatever we can and trust that others will too so that the parish can accomplish its mission.  Everyone can give something: time, talent and/or treasure.  I tell the folks in the nursing home that they can give of themselves just by being patient with their neighbors and being present to their friends and family.  Everyone can give someone some food themselves.

Today’s Gospel miracle isn’t just a nice story that we are meant to admire from the distance of a couple of thousand years.  We are meant to live it and experience it in the here and now by receiving the generous gift of God poured out most perfectly in his Body and Blood, by giving what we can give, and by trusting that God can make something truly great happen with what we have offered.  Give them some food yourselves.

First Holy Communion

Children, I want you to remember one very important thing.  If you remember this important fact, you will never be lost in your relationship with Jesus.  That one thing is that God loves you very much.  God made you because he loves you.  Because he loves you, he had to make you, because he couldn’t live without you.  God is love – we know that – and the only thing he can do is love.  God loves you more than words can possibly say.  I want you always to remember that.

And that’s really why we’re here today, isn’t it?  You’re all dressed up so nicely, and you’ve come here with excitement in your hearts, and you look forward to doing something new!  God is excited too; I can tell you that!  Today, he is going to give himself to you in a whole new way: he is going to give you the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Jesus gives us his Body and Blood so that he can be present in our lives and show us his love every day.  God does this for us because – you guessed it! – he loves you very much!

We all know the story.  God made us out of love.  Because he loves us, he made a world for us to live in and gave us everything we need to live in happiness.  But somewhere along the way, we messed up, we sinned.  We turned away from God and told him, in a way, that we didn’t want to be his friends any more.  We did not love God as much as he loves us.  But because God loves us, there is no way he would leave that alone.  So he sent Jesus, his only Son, to be one of us.  He was born into our world as a little baby, and he grew up and lived among the people at that time.  He went through the world and taught the Good News that God loves us, and he healed the sick and did mighty deeds.  When the time came, he did what he came here for.  He died on the Cross to pay the price for our sins – not his, because he never sins – for our sins, he died.  And then, because death and sin could not have the final word in the world, he rose to new life that lasts forever.  He went back to heaven and has prepared a place for each of us to go if we just follow him there.  God loves us so much, he wants us all to be with him and be happy with him one day.

But we ourselves still sin sometimes, don’t we?  Sometimes we still say to God, by our actions and sometimes our words, that we don’t love him as much as he loves us.  But again, he doesn’t want to ever leave things that way.  So he gave us a way to become his friends again; he gave us the Sacrament of Penance in the Church so that our sins could be forgiven and we could experience his love once again.  You celebrated that sacrament for the first time just before Christmas.  God wants to forgive our sins because he loves us that much!

With our sins forgiven, he wants to be present to us all the time.  So before he left the world, he gave us the Sacrament of the Eucharist – his Body and Blood poured out in love for us – so that he could be with us forever.  Today, you get to receive that wonderful sacrament for the very first time, and no one is as happy about that as God is!  God is happy because he loves you very much and wants to be with you forever.

So it is very important that this isn’t the only time you receive Holy Communion.  As important as your First Holy Communion is, your second and third and hundredth and millionth Holy Communions are even more important!  This isn’t a one-time-only thing; God want to show us all the time how much he loves us, and he does that in a very special way in the Holy Eucharist.  So you will be coming back for your second communion later this evening or some time tomorrow, and that will be exciting.  When you do, you should wear your special First Eucharist clothes if you can so that everyone can celebrate with you.

And you need to take your parents to Mass with you every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation.  Because it’s important that they also know how much God loves them!  Make sure that you all come to Church every week so that God can continue to keep you close in his love.

The most important thing you need to know is that God loves you very much.  There is nothing he wouldn’t do to be with you.  He looks forward to giving you everything you need to be with him forever.  If anyone ever asks you what the most important thing is that you have learned about God, you know the answer: God loves you very much!

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Tonight’s readings

Dear Brothers and Sisters, how good it feels to say “Alleluia” tonight!  Ever since we put the acclamation of our Resurrection joy away some forty days ago, we have been yearning for the opportunity to celebrate, once again, the fullness of our salvation.  And this is the night!  This is the night when Jesus Christ breaks the prison-bars of death and rises triumphant over the grave!  We have kept vigil for the fullness of that promise to be revealed, and now, here we are!  How could we do anything less than shout “Alleluia” with all of our joy?!

Tonight, we have gathered in the oppressive darkness of the world around us.  The sadness of sin and death, culminating in the death of our Savior, seemed for a time to have triumphed.  We know, only too well, that it was our sins that brought Jesus to the Cross: it was indeed our infirmities that he bore, our brokenness on display for all the world to see.  So as we gathered in a dark Church or out on the dark piazza, we certainly must have felt that sadness in a special way.  But we know the whole story, don’t we?  And because we do know the whole story, even in our experience of sadness, there is that expectation, that part of us that knows that joy is on its way.

As we have gathered over the last three nights to let the story of our salvation unfold, we have had an ever-heightened sense of yearning for the story to come to its fruition.  And tonight, we are treated to an even greater dose of that.  Tonight, we have heard stories of God’s desire to bring us back to him.  We have seen that time and time again, God has broken through the history of our brokenness, has triumphed over the lure of sin, and has redirected his chosen ones to the path of life.  We have recalled that God created everything to reflect the resplendent goodness that is God; we have seen Abraham, on the cusp of inheriting the promise of eternity for all his descendants, called upon to sacrifice his only son to show his love, only to have it all turned on its head when God promises to provide the lamb for the sacrifice, that lamb that is the foreshadowing of a Savior; we have seen Moses lead the people out of the Egypt that has held them slaves to sin, through the desert of desolation and yearning for God, safely through the waters of the Red Sea which flowed back to wash all their sins away, that journey that is the prefiguring of the sacrament of Baptism; then the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel have called us to come to the water, to be nourished freely and cleansed of our impurities.

Tonight we have heard in reading after reading, that God will absolutely not ever abandon his loved and chosen ones to sin and death.  We have heard that God initiated the covenant and pursues it forever, never forcing us to accept his will, but willing that we should follow him and accept his mercy.  God has provided the lamb of salvation, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.  God has gone to the cross and been in the tomb and descended to hell – there is nowhere that is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, there is no place, no depth to which God will not go to redeem his beloved creation.  God’s mercy endures forever!

God delights in the freedom of will that we possess as a natural part of who we are, because it gives us the opportunity to freely choose to love him, as he freely chooses to love us.  But he knows that same free will can and will also lead us astray, into sin, into evil.  The free choice to love God is a greater good than the absence of evil, so not imbuing us with free will was never an option.  Instead, evil and sin and our fallenness are redeemed on this most holy of all nights, this night which “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”

And thus it is fitting that this night is the night when we focus on Baptism.  Everything is in place: the waters of the Red Sea are parted, the pillar of fire glows to the honor of God, we are led to grace and joined to God’s holy ones of every time and place, Christ emerges triumphant from the underworld and the sin of Adam is redeemed forever.  And so Korrin, our Elect, in a few moments will enter the waters of Baptism from the west: that place of the setting sun, renouncing the prince of darkness, professing faith in God, dying with Christ in the waters, emerging to new life, triumphant with Christ on the east, and encountering the bright morning star whose light blazes for all eternity.  We will hold our breath as the waters flow over her, and sing Alleluia when she is reborn, crying out the praise of God with all the joy the Church can muster!

Our joy will continue to overflow as she and Brian, our candidate for full Communion with the Church, are Confirmed in the Holy Spirit and fed for the very first time with the Eucharistic Bread of Life and Cup of Eternal Salvation.  God’s mercy has once again triumphed and brought two wonderful young people into the family of the Church and the community of our parish.  God’s goodness shows forth all its splendor in so many wonderful ways on this most holy of all nights!

This is the night that redeems all of our days and nights.  This is the night when sin and death are rendered impotent by the plunging of the Paschal candle, the Light of Christ, into the waters of Baptism.  On this night, everything is turned upside-down; sin and death no longer define who we are as human beings; the forces of evil search in vain for darkness in which to cower, because the bright morning star has washed the darkness away.  On this night, the waters of Baptism kill death, wash away faults and wickedness, give refreshment to those who are parched for holiness, and bring life to all who have withered in the desert of brokenness.

And so, may the flame of our joy, blazing against the darkness of the world’s night, be found still burning by the Morning Star:  the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ our Lord, God’s only Son, who coming back from even from the depths of death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever!  Amen!

The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Bread of Life Discourse V)

Today’s readings

Life calls us to make some very difficult decisions sometimes.  Who will we vote for?  What school will we choose for our children?  Is this the person I should marry?  Is this job the right one for me right now?  In today’s readings, though, the players are making a very basic choice: whom will they serve?  It seems like the answer should be easy – God, of course – but for the people of that time, and if we’re honest, for all of us, there are certainly distractions to true worship.

The Israelites were certainly tempted to worship the so-called gods of the lands they moved into.  That would have made it easier for them to get along, but more importantly, would have provided economic benefits as they allied themselves with the native peoples.  For those who had been following Jesus, they couldn’t get past the hard teaching that he was the Bread of Life, come down from heaven, so many of them turned away.  And for people in our own time, don’t we all find excuses to turn away?  Living our faith is sometimes inconvenient because we can’t get the kids to their sports and still come to Mass, or it’s uncomfortable because we are embarrassed to live our faith and stand up for truth when business or social relationships call us to do what we know we should not.

Everyone at some point has to answer the questions we hear in our first reading and our Gospel today:  Decide today whom you will serve.  Do you also want to leave?

Today’s Gospel reading is the conclusion to the five-week study the Church has given us of the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, which we commonly call the Bread of Life Discourse.  We began back at the end of July, when Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves and two fish.  The crowds pursued him because they wanted more, and Jesus gave them food of another kind: spiritual teaching about what really feeds us.  In these last couple of weeks he has told them that he himself is the Bread of Life, that if one desires to avoid hunger in eternity, they need to partake of his own Body and Blood, because he is the true bread that came down from heaven.

The people have had two problems with this: first, they objected to him saying he had come down from heaven.  Many of them knew his family, and some probably knew him since childhood.  How then could he claim to have come from heaven?  Secondly, the prospect of eating his Body and Blood was repulsive to them.  They were so scandalized that, of the thousands he had fed, most of them returned home now, and even many of his disciples said goodbye.  So he poses the question to his Apostles – the chosen Twelve: – Do you also want to leave?  Speaking for the rest, Peter professes faith that Jesus is the only One to whom they can turn, that he is in fact the Holy One of God.

The situation is not that different from the one Joshua addresses in our first reading today.  Joshua took over leadership of the people after Moses died, and he is now showing his leadership style.  He will not be a leader that forces the people to do one thing or another.  Instead, he points out the many wonderful things God has done for the people.  This is the God who led them out of Egypt and sustained them through the desert journey.  This is the God who led them into the Promised Land, the land he promised their ancestors he would give them.  And now that they have received the many benefits of God’s mighty promises, it’s time for them to make a choice.  Will they serve the so-called gods of the pagan inhabitants of the land, or will they serve the Lord their God, who gave them so much.  For Joshua, the choice is easy: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Peter and Joshua have it right.  They know the real source of grace, they know the One true God, they know the source of everlasting food and drink, and they choose accordingly.  And now the question is ours.  We have all of us been on a five-week-long Eucharistic retreat.  If you’ve missed any part of it, I encourage you to go back and read all of the sixth chapter of John.  It will take you ten or fifteen minutes if you read it nice and slow.  And as we stand here at the end of it all, we too have to make the decisions we hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word: decide today whom you will serve; what about you, will you also leave?

It’s a critical question for us.  Because there are lots of entities in our world that are vying for our servitude.  Will we serve the so-called gods of the people in whose country we live?  We who are disciples are aliens here; this is not our true home.  So what’s it going to be?  Are we going to serve the gods of relativism, of greed, and the culture of death?  Will we turn away and no longer follow our Lord?  Or will we recognize with the disciples that there is no one else to whom we can turn and say with Joshua, “we will serve the Lord?”

At one point or another in every disciple’s life, he or she has to answer this question.  For me, it came in my early thirties, when I had been going to Willow Creek Church with some friends.  I was attracted, as many are, to the music and the preaching and I had many good experiences there.  There came a point in which I felt like I had to make a decision between the Catholic Church and Willow Creek, and I spoke to my pastor about it.  We went back and forth for a while and finally Father Mike put it very bluntly: “I don’t think you would ever stand in that chapel and say Jesus wasn’t present there.”

Shortly after that, I went to Willow Creek while they had their monthly “Lord’s Supper” service.  And that was part of the problem: it was monthly, not every week, certainly not every day.  And it wasn’t Jesus: it was just bread and wine that was a mere symbol of the Lord’s Body and Blood.  They had to project the Lord’s Prayer on the screen, because people didn’t just know it.  And the speaker in his sermon, apparently an ex-Catholic, made light of the Sacrament of Penance.  And in that moment, I knew Father Mike was right.  Christ is present in the Tabernacle, he is present on the altar, present in the sacraments, and there is no way in the world I could ever live without that.  I couldn’t turn away, and I would serve the Lord in the Catholic Church.  Who would ever guessed it would have led me here today!

And so I leave you with the same question Joshua posed to the Israelites and Jesus posed to his Twelve.  You have been fed at this table on the Bread that came down from heaven; the holy Bread of eternal life, the Body and Blood of our Savior God.  Yes, there are distractions out there, but we all know deep in our hearts where the true food is.  So will you also leave?  Decide today whom you will serve.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!