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).