Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bread of Life Discourse V: Love, Marriage and the Eucharist

Icon of Christ, the Bridegroom
Icon written by Rev. Paul G. Czerwonka. © 2007. All rights reserved. Fr. Paul is the Director of Aesthetical and Spiritual Formation at the American College of Louvain, Belgium. He is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse and currently teaches iconography and assists in the formation of men for the priesthood. Please continue to pray for priests and for vocations to the priesthood.

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 23 August, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Joshua 24:1-18, Ephesians 5:21-32 and John 6:60-69)

If you are reading this right now and you are a married person then you have certainly been on one before. If you are a priest or religious, you may have been on one previous to entering the seminary or religious life. If you are a single person, then you may be going on one of these even now. What I am talking about, of course, are first dates.

First dates can be quite unpredictable; spending an evening out with a person you may not even know all that well. It can be disastrous…or beautiful…or it could even be something which begins to forge a relationship between two persons that will last a lifetime.

I would like to share a story with you (a true story) about a couple who experienced all three of those on the night of their first date! It was disastrous, beautiful and formed the beginning of a bond that has lasted even now and, please God, will endure throughout their entire lives.

Without getting into all the details, it was a night that began at a dinner where she felt slightly sick but the evening soon went from bad to worse. In the end he had to bring her to the emergency room and then finally dropped her off back home so that she could be taken care of by her family.

Basically there were two thoughts running through his mind at the end of that night. The first was: What a disaster! That was not at all what I expected this date to be like.

The second thought was actually not a thought at all; it was a prayer. He thought: In spite of how terrible things went tonight, I think I want to spend the rest of my life with this person, and he prayed, God, if this woman is my wife someday, I will take care of her for the rest of my life.

I know, it sounds like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but it is true! And I share it with you because that crisis situation and moment of decision is something like what we find in the first reading and in the Gospel this weekend.

In our Old Testament reading Joshua is addressing the people of Israel who are just about to begin a new life in the Promised Land. They have been set free from slavery in Egypt and brought through the desert after all kinds of trials and difficulties. Nothing turned out quite the way they had expected. Yet even in the midst of their own failures God has remained so very faithful.

Joshua, understanding quite well that this is the moment of great consequence for the people, knowing them all too well and realizing they are living in a land of many gods, compels them to make a choice. The time has come to make a decision. He says:

If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
—Joshua 24:15

Following his example the people also give their assent and choose to follow the God who has cared so very well for them.

In the Gospel there is a similar decision being made. Christ has revealed Himself as the Bread of Life, the Messiah that has come to offer His own body and blood for the salvation of the world. He has made it clear that there is nothing less than eternal life at stake here. All who eat His flesh and drink His blood will have life within them, and He will raise them up on the last day.

Sadly, remarkably, the majority of them are not willing to receive Him or even to consider the meaning of these words that He is speaking! They continue to murmur against Him and complain, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (John 6:60). Many of His own disciples, we are told—many—walked away from Him right then and there.

Jesus Christ, recognizing that this is a crisis moment and the moment of decision, turns directly to the Twelve Apostles and asks them a question upon which depends the future of the nascent Church: “Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67).

It is Peter who answers for them all: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).

These powerful and poignant moments of decision which we find in our readings for this weekend, as compelling as they are in their own right, have much more in common with that story I mentioned earlier than the fact that they are crisis situations. In both the Old Testament account from the Book of Joshua and in St. John’s Gospel what is being described is a relationship which is spousal; it is nuptial.

All throughout the Old Testament, and especially in the Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea—God is described as the faithful spouse who has chosen Israel for His Bride. He loves Her deeply and adorns her in royalty (Isaiah 62:3), He seeks Her out and draws Her to Himself, loving Her with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3), and when She is unfaithful He lures Her into the desert and speaks tenderly to Her (Hosea 2:14) because He desperately wants Her back! That is the depth of the relationship which Joshua is leading them to in the first reading this weekend.

In the New Testament this spousal love becomes even more vivid, visual and even physical, in the person Jesus Christ. He is the Bridegroom of His Bride, the Church. He will give everything—His own body and blood, broken and shed for us on the cross—to bring us home to eternal life in God.

That is what Christ is trying to communicate to His disciples in St. John’s Gospel all throughout the Bread of Life Discourse. That offering of His body and blood on the cross is the very culmination of the Gospel we have been listening to for the last five weeks. It is at the heart of the mystery of the Eucharist…and it is also at the very heart of the mystery of marriage.

In our second reading this weekend, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle goes through great lengths to describe for us what marriage consists of. He talks about the mutual submission of the spouses: "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). Married couples make an offering of themselves to one another out of love and out of devotion to God, and that self-offering includes no less than everything. St. Paul goes on to describe the marriage covenant even in physical terms. Quoting Genesis, he describes how a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and the two become one flesh. But then he concludes by saying something that is simply astounding: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).

The self-giving love of husband and wife and their one-flesh union here on this earth is actually, in addition to being the expression of their love for each other, an image for something else. Marriage is an image for Jesus Christ’s own self-offering, His own gift of His body and blood for us on the cross.

But to make sure that we would never miss that spousal connection and the intimate bond we share with Him as His Bride and the people for whom He has made that self-offering, He has chosen to make it a sacrament: the Eucharist.

When we celebrate the Eucharist each week, we listen to His words: “This is my body, which will be given up for you…take it and eat it; this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant…take it and drink from it.” What we are celebrating is the God who offered Himself as our faithful Spouse in order to unite Himself to us forever.

We receive His body and blood and become one flesh with Him. Our spousal covenant with Him, that “new and eternal covenant,” is renewed each time we share in this Most Blessed Sacrament. Strengthened in that Gift and nourished by Christ, we have all the courage and power we need to face any of the difficult decisions and circumstances of life.

This week, when we face those moments of decision or times of crisis, may we echo the words of Joshua: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15) and say with confidence, along with St. Peter, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bread of Life Discourse IV: It's Personal

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio
from the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; See John 6:51-58)

Our first reading for this weekend is a beautiful and poetic excerpt from the Book of Proverbs which speaks rather eloquently to us about wisdom. The intriguing figure of Lady Wisdom is the very personification of the way of life God calls us to. Quite literally, Lady Wisdom beckons us:

Let whoever is simple turn in here…Come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed!
—Proverbs 9:5

This invitation to share a meal with Lady Wisdom reveals to us that the ways of God and the path He wishes us to follow are not merely informational. The wisdom of God is, instead, relational. It is personal. God does not give us an instruction manual or a series of checkpoints to guide us through life. He invites us into a personal relationship in which we grow in virtue, knowledge and holiness because the God who calls us is Himself filled with all of these things, and more.

You may have seen the movie The Matrix. The characters in that science fiction film are connected to a massive computer program—the matrix—that allows them to exist not only in this world but also in a parallel, virtual world in which almost anything is possible. When they want to learn a new skill in the matrix, a computer file is uploaded to their memory and they suddenly possess that skill. One of the main characters, Trinity, finds herself in danger and the only means of escape is a helicopter which she has no idea how to fly! In an instant she is able to upload the software and takes off into the air like a woman who has been flying helicopters all of her life.

That is not the way God instructs us in wisdom! We do not grow in understanding or in knowledge of the ways of God like Trinity, in a single moment; wisdom is not like computer software. We grow in wisdom through a personal relationship with The Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We spend time with Him, grow in intimacy with Him, learn from Him and share in the very life He offers. That is what Christ is calling us to do in the Gospel this weekend.

Much like that invitation we heard earlier, where Lady Wisdom instructs us to eat of the food and wine prepared for us, Christ invites us to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:51-58), a clear and unmistakable reference to that gift of Himself to us in the Holy Eucharist.

But like wisdom, the Eucharist is not simply a moment which we experience at Mass each week. It is a personal encounter with the Savior who offers His body and blood on the cross to redeem us; the Eucharist is the second person of the Blessed Trinity who calls us into a personal relationship with God.

When we come to Mass do we recognize and acknowledge that?

In her book The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila is instructing her sisters in prayer and she teaches them how to avoid obstacles which keep them from recognizing the personal relationship which is at the center of the Christian life. She says that, in prayer, they should not merely try to picture Jesus and imagine what He would look like in a given situation or scene. No, instead she says they should also look at Him (see The Way of Perfection, Chapter 26, #3). She reminds them how Christ never takes His eyes off them! When they pray, they should look right back! They should look at the One who is already looking at them and allow that intimate and personal connection to grow even deeper.

In the Eucharist we do well to do the same. When we look at the tabernacle we are looking at Him. When the priest raises the Host at Mass and proclaims, “This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” we are looking at Him. When the body of Christ is offered to us at communion each week we are looking at Him.

What is the best way to prepare for such a personal encounter? What is the best way to savor such an experience even long after the Mass is over? I would suggest we take the counsel of St. Teresa of Avila and spend as much time as possible—before, during and after the Eucharistic sacrifice—watching in prayer and looking at Christ who never takes His eyes off us.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Bread of Life Discourse III: Drawn into the Eucharist

Jesus, Our Eucharistic Lord:
Rose Window from the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart,
Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 8 & 9 August, 2009 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I. and St. Mary's Church, Pawtucket, R.I.; See John Chapter 6)

We continue this weekend to listen to the beautiful words of St. John’s Gospel in what has come to be known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.” As I mentioned previously, the Church gives us five consecutive Sunday’s to follow this development in the teaching of Christ who reveals Himself as “the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41).

Our series began two weeks ago with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Using only five loaves of bread and two small fish Christ provided for the multitude, with baskets left to spare.

Then just last week we saw how Christ had crossed over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee as the crowd began searching for Him once again. They were seeking Him out for more bread, but Christ engaged them in dialogue and encouraged them instead to work “for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:27).

This week, as Christ makes it explicit that He is the “bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:38, 44), our story takes a turn for the worse. The people are not willing to accept that He is the one sent from heaven by God. After all, they reason, we know his father and mother. Instead of believing in Him, says St. John, the people began to murmur; they started talking negatively about Him. Maybe it starts with just a comment or a small quip; we do not know. But before long the whole crowd is in on it.

How many times have we experienced something similar in our own lives? When we are in a group of people, sometimes a disparaging word is spoken about someone that we know…and maybe someone we do not really like all that much. Suddenly another person chimes in and we are all too eager to hear more of the same. Before we even realize it, we ourselves become drawn into the conversation; perhaps we begin to say things that we would not have even considered moments ago.

And we always leave those conversations the same way: more negative and discouraged than before. We ourselves become lessened and diminished. That is how sin often works in our lives. We resist for a while but once we allow ourselves to be drawn into it we are always adversely affected.

Sin separates us from God and from each other, and so it comes as no surprise that Christ so adamantly attacks it in the Gospel this weekend. “Stop murmuring among yourselves” (John 6:43), He says to them.

Christ is the enemy of sin and has come to engage it with the very power of heaven and to destroy it. But He is also the Savior of sinners, and so He offers more than just a rebuke. Instead He offers another alternative, another direction in which we should be moving.

Immediately after rebuking them He explains the reason why they have not believed: because they have not allowed the Father to move them in that direction.

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him.
—John 6:44

So it becomes clear that we can either be drawn into sin and into that negative spiral that always leaves us diminished, or we can be drawn ever more deeply into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

That is what the Father is trying to do in the Gospel all throughout this “Bread of Life Discourse”: to draw the people to Christ.

That is why Christ was sent from heaven: to draw us into a deeper relationship with His heavenly Father.

That is why the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church: to draw us into an intimate and abiding relationship with the living God.

The word that St. John uses—to draw—in the original Greek implies an action which involves some kind of resistance. He uses it again towards the end of his Gospel to describe the way a fisherman pulls in a net from the sea: he draws it in, but not without effort, because it is laden with fish and meets the resistance of the water (see John 21). God the Father is constantly trying to draw us into a deeper relationship with Christ, but so very often in our lives there is resistance.

There is a powerful story about the conversion of the English writer and philosopher C.S. Lewis. You may be familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia or so many of the other books he has written which express so eloquently and with tremendous passion the Christian message and faith. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest Christian writers of this past century.

Yet for years C.S. Lewis was a vowed atheist! While in the middle of his career as a brilliant Oxford professor he had come to the conclusion that there simply was no God. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he describes how that fa├žade which he had created slowly began to crumble as the God in whom he did not believe began to draw him in! Towards the end of the book he writes:

"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I desired so earnestly not to meet. That which I had greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

Despite all that C.S. Lewis had done to keep God out, He had broken through and the transformation had begun. God is that powerful and that effective, even in the midst of our resistance and in spite of the many obstacles that we encounter along the way.

That same God is here with us now, and He is seeking to draw us ever closer to Jesus Christ His Son. God the Father is drawing us ever more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist, the Bread of Life. As we draw close to this altar today, let us offer no resistance, but instead allow Christ to nourish and strengthen us on our journey home to Him. May our communion bring us all closer together and, together, closer to Christ.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Bread of Life Discourse II: Searching for Christ

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 1 & 2 August, 2009 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See John Chapter 6)

Our Gospel this weekend is a continuation of the Sixth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel, what has come to be known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.” As I mentioned last week, every three years the Church gives us this five week series in which we focus more intentionally on the mystery of the Holy Eucharist in the words of Christ Himself.

Last week we began with the miracle of the loaves and fish, when Christ fed the 5,000 with just a small amount of food. You may remember the reaction of the people, how they were so enthusiastic and filled with spiritual fervor that Christ had to withdraw because He feared that they would take Him by force and make Him king!

This week the fervor and enthusiasm of the crowd has somewhat…dissipated. They are not quite as fired up as they were last week…Let’s not get carried away here, they might be thinking. Nonetheless, they are still seeking and searching for Christ.

St. John tells us that they did not find Jesus there where the miracle took place, and noticing that His disciples had gone over to the other side of Lake Galilee, they started to move in the same direction. You can picture that scene: hundreds, if not thousands of people, cramming into boats and travelling in search of Christ. And sure enough they find Him!

Yet Christ, always the realist, always seeing things exactly as they are, is quick to size up the situation:

You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
—John 6:26

They were not so much seeking the God of miracles as they were searching for the miracles of God. Their stomachs being well fed they desired to continue this good thing that they had stumbled upon in Christ. Instead, He tells them:

Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of man will give you.
—John 6:27

Clearly now Christ has outlined the tension between being satisfied and fed here in this life and being satiated and content for eternal life. But importantly, we have to realize that He is not being critical of the first scenario. Jesus Christ is not saying we shouldn’t turn to Him for our physical and earthly needs.

§ On the contrary, God wants us to seek Him out for the food that sustains our bodies; by all means we should ask God for food on the table.

§ In this current economy we should be asking for economic stability and financial security. There is nothing wrong with asking for heavenly assistance in building up our bank account so that we can live with peace of mind and be able to retire without having to worry about the future.

§ When it comes to our health we should be seeking God for healing if we are sick and for strength to endure difficulties and setbacks. God wants us to seek Him out for those things.

§ Perhaps most importantly—regarding our spiritual lives—God wants us to search for the things that will give our souls peace and joy even right here and now on this earth.

The danger that we find in the Gospel this weekend is that we will seek out only those things. We seek to be fed and cared for in this life only, and risk losing out on the greatest Gift that God has in store for us: Himself now and for all eternity.

Do we really seek and search for God in the ways that He wants to make Himself known to us, or do we also tend to seek Him out on our own terms, to want more so the comforts of God than the "God of all comfort" (see 2 Corinthians 1:3)?

Here in Rhode Island we live in the most Catholic state in the entire country. I believe we are over 60% Roman Catholic; 6 or 7 out of every 10 people around you are Catholic. Yet if you go to any of the major commercial bookstores—and I do, because I enjoy those places immensely—and you look in the Religion/Spirituality section, what will you find? Comparatively speaking there are very few distinctively Roman Catholic books there.

Some of the books in those sections are nonsense and fluff, or perhaps even dangerous diversions which could draw one away from faith in Christ. Many, however, are inspiring and interesting and help to build up our faith and can teach us about God and His word.

Nonetheless, there are so few books which focus on the primary way that God is revealing Himself to us here each and every week; there are so very few books on the Eucharist. Yet here the Church spends five consecutive weeks, five Sunday Gospels, delving more deeply into that very mystery. It is that important. We need to open our ears and our hearts when we encounter so central a mystery as the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

There is a beautiful children's book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery called The Little Prince (I am sure you can find it at one of the bookstores I mentioned above; it’s a well known and beloved book). It tells the story of young prince from another planet who comes here to this earth and befriends a small boy. They become fast friends and go on all kinds of adventures together. At one point they find themselves in the desert, days away from civilization, and they are thirsty. They search diligently for water, just as the people in the Gospel this weekend searched for Christ. Suddenly they come across a well right there in the middle of the desert! There is a rope and a pulley connected to a small bucket. They hoist up that bucket and taste the deliciously cold water and are completely satisfied. The little prince then turns to the boy and with great wisdom says:

“The men where you live raise five thousand roses in the same garden—and they do not find in it what they are looking for.”

The boy agrees with his observation and then the little prince continues: “And yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose, or in a little water.”

So many of us spend our lives searching for and seeking a happiness that can be so elusive and we often end up less satisfied and less fulfilled than when we started. We have televisions with over a hundred channels, new movies that come out every week, and thousands of ways that we can entertain ourselves for hours on end. We search for peace and happiness in our relatives and friends, in our work and leisure, but we are never satisfied because what we are seeking and searching for cannot be found in the things of this world.

On the contrary, what we yearn and long for, seek and search for more than anything else in the whole world has come into this world and found us. That is what the Gospel is about this weekend. Thousands of people rushed into boats and sailed across the sea to find Christ but they failed to see that He had already come down from heaven to seek and search for them. He crossed eternity to come to them and give them His body and His blood. They are on the verge of missing that; let us not make the same mistake!

Today Christ comes here looking for us, and He says to each of us what He said to those who were searching for Him after the miracle of the loaves and fish:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.
—John 6:35