In Memoriam, The Last Supper, Andrew White, Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Mayfair, London, England.
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. John 6:51.
The readings for the last few Sundays seem to concentrate on what could be called Jesus’ central message, that he is with us until the end of time, and that he invites us to be an intimate part of his eternal life here on earth in anticipation of being with him forever in the next. It is, after all, the most important message he came to deliver to us. He lives in and with us today by means of the Holy Spirit of God, just as all those years ago, guiding us, refreshing us and empowering us to be true followers. But on the face of it, it is a shocking image, as seen in the quotation from today’s gospel.
In the early days of the Christian church, when the “sacred mysteries” remained well and truly sacred and mysterious (it is thought the early Christians never talked openly about the Eucharist, and so rumors began to spread), the Roman authorities charged Christians with being cannibals! In addition, rumors also got out that they were brothers and sisters who loved each other, and were therefore incestuous; these people believed in only one God, which to the Romans with their pantheon of gods and goddesses, was tantamount to being atheists, another accusation. As Christians refused to worship those gods, who protected the Roman Empire, they were also traitors by endangering the very life of the empire. The link below talks of these and other accusations against early Christians.
Quite a lineup of deadly crimes, resulting in 300 years of persecution. But the cannibalism was among the worst of the charges. All the other “crimes” could be considered secondary to that one. The Romans simply did not understand what this Christian belief in the consumption of the body and blood of the Lord was all about, and I think we can all understand that confusion. Even reading the gospel today represents a challenge to us, 2000 years later. It sounds extraordinary and requires an effort to understand and accept it.
The ancient Hebrews through the course of 2000 years or so, began to understand who their God was, and what qualities or characteristics this God had. For example, the gods of the ancients above all other things, had to be powerful. People needed protection and help from events over which they had no control at all, such as disease, famine, natural disasters, invasion. So they looked to their gods for help. Therefore when Yahweh God descended to earth, to an old man, Abram, in Haran in Mesopotamia, power had to be among the first divine qualities revealed. Sure enough, it was. Abram’s old and barren wife, Sarai, gave birth to a son, Isaac. That was a power even we today could not match. She was about 80 years old! Instead of defeating an enemy or stopping a plague, God gave new life to an old barren couple. And so salvation history began.
Among the divine qualities revealed through the ages was loyalty or trustworthiness. God promised Abram and Sarai, now renamed Abraham and Sarah by God, land and descendants, which eventually came to be. Hence Jesus had to demonstrate the exact same quality in his mission so that he could be truly considered God’s Son. The last verse of Matthew’s gospel is his promise to be with us to the end of time. And today’s gospel reveals how he meant to achieve it. The bread and the wine, consecrated by the Holy Spirit, becomes his flesh and blood for the life of the world which we take into ourselves. So he is with us in the most intimate way to the end of time. He was, and is, loyal to his word. The consequences can be glimpsed in today’s second reading. Paul talks about the rewards of a decent life, one rich with God’s presence.
And note the first reading. Proverbs talks about God’s Holy Spirit, an intimation of the full revelation of the Holy Spirit eventually given to us by the Lord. In Hebrew, God’s Spirit is feminine (unlike the unfortunate gender given the Holy Spirit in our translation of the gospels from the Greek original, where the word spirit is neutral). The first reading seems to suggest the Spirit of God is preparing a party, preparing us for a really good time: Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! This seems to be a wonderful elaboration of Jesus’ invitation to his banquet. But so often Christians seem to be a gloomy lot. Pope Francis has even suggested that ministers of communion should smile when fulfilling their office; after all, they are handing out the means by which we will achieve eternal life and happiness! A wonderful piece of advice I think.
And that sums up the message of this 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Jesus invites us into his life, his world, a world of unending joy, laughter, happiness, fulfillment, in an utterly unique and transforming way. So it is up to us to be sensible enough to accept this free gift, live up to its completely human expectations, and join the club!
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