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Quality Communication

El Greco Blind cropped

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – September 6, 2015

In the magnificent piece of biblical poetry in Isaiah 35:4-7 (today’s first reading) the prophet Isaiah announces the end of the Babylonian captivity.

The Exodus of God’s people from bondage in Egypt became a model for thinking about salvation and a symbol of the great pilgrimage of the human family towards God. The prophet Isaiah encountered a dispirited community of exiles. Isaiah responded by recalling the joyous memories of the Exodus from Egypt.

A second Exodus is in store, symbolized by the healing granted to the blind, the lame, and the mute, and new life to the dead. Delivered and saved by God, all peoples shall return to their own land by way of the desert, in a new exodus. Isaiah prophecies that there shall be one, pure road, and it will be called the way of holiness upon which the redeemed shall walk.

In the midst of the desert, streams will break forth. God’s saving power also embraces afflicted humans, healing every ill that comes upon people. Isaiah addressed specific afflictions that God would heal: “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

Isaiah’s prediction of this abundant, new life underlies Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ cure of “a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech” (Mark 7:31-37]). Mark’s story of the healing of this hearing and speech impaired man invites us to consider some important points about sickness and suffering in the New Testament.

Sick people in the Bible are those who have fallen from an appropriate human state or condition of human integrity or wholeness. Jesus heals people by restoring them to a proper state: Those who are leprous are made clean, blind people see, mute persons speak, etc.

We have little information about how Jesus’ healings episodes were accomplished. Jesus did not perform miracles as someone waving a magic wand or clicking his fingers. The man cured by Jesus was deaf and dumb; he could not communicate with others, hear his voice and express his feelings and needs. The sigh uttered by Jesus at the moment of touching the ears of the deaf man tells us that he identified with people’s suffering; he participated deeply in their misfortune and made it his own burden.

“Ephphatha, Be opened!”

The early Church was so impressed by the healing miracle of the deaf man that it attached deep significance to it, incorporating the Lord’s action into the Baptismal Rite of new Christians. To this day, the minister of baptism puts his fingers into our ears and touches the tip of our tongue, repeating Jesus’ word: “Ephphatha, Be opened!” He has made both the deaf hear and the dumb speak.

We learn by hearing and listening

Sight deals with things, while hearing deals with human beings. Sight has to do with science, with observation, with objectivity. Hearing has to do with personal relationships, with subjectivity. When I use my eyes to look at people or things, I am in complete control of the information that comes to me, for I can shut my eyes when I wish. When I am reading the words of scripture by myself, I can close my eyes and stop reading. But the ear is unlike the eye. I cannot shut my ear. The only way I can stop the sound is to leave the room!

We learn about other people by hearing and listening to what they have to say. Language reveals the inside of another person, something sight can never do. If we want to learn about God, we must listen to His Word with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind.

Looking at Him, if it were possible, would not tell us anything. After all, Satan appeared as an angel of light, while God appeared as the broken, mangled body of a young man dying on a cross. Who would have believed this without eyes and ears of faith?

When we read the Bible, do we “hear” what it says? The Bible does not tell us to read the Word of God but to hear it, to listen to it. That is the great Jewish prayer: “Shema, Israel,” “Hear, O Israel.” Someone else must read the Word so that I may hear it and truly understand it.

Biblical faith cannot be individualistic but must be communal. Speaking and hearing involve mutual submission. Mutual respect and submission is the essence of community, and the only way I can get away from hearing is to leave the room, to leave the community and go off by myself. Sadly this is the case for many who have left the Church community and claim to have found freedom, autonomy, and truth in solitude, away from the community of faith!

What they have found is not solitude, but loneliness, selfishness and rugged individualism. Authentic hearing and listening involve submission to authority and membership in community.

Physical and spiritual deafness

The healing stories reflect Jesus’ intimate, powerful relationship with God and his great compassion. He healed with words, touch and physical means. Physical deafness and spiritual deafness are alike; Jesus confronted one type in the man born deaf, the other type in the Pharisees and others who were unreceptive of his message. Jesus was concerned not only with physical infirmity but also spiritual impairment and moral deafness.

Our contemporary world has grown deaf to the words of Jesus, but it is not a physical deafness, it is a spiritual deafness caused by sin. We have become so used to sin that we take it as normal and we have become deafened and blinded to Jesus and his daily call to us.

If deafness and dumbness consist in the inability to communicate plainly with one’s neighbor or to have good relationships, then we must acknowledge that each of us is in some way impaired in our hearing and speech. What decides the quality of our communication, hearing and speech is not simply to speak or not to speak or hear, but to do so or not to do so out of love.

We are blind and deaf when we show favoritism or discrimination because of the status and wealth of other people (see James 2:1-5). We fail to recall that divine favor consists in God’s election and promises (James 2:5).

We are deaf when we do not hear the cry for help raised to us and we prefer to put indifference between our neighbor and ourselves. In doing so we oppress the poor and blaspheme the name of Christ (James 2:6-7).

Parents are deaf when they do not understand that certain dysfunctional behaviors of their children betray deep-seated cries for attention and love.

We are deaf when turn inward and close ourselves to the world because of selfishness, pride, resentment, anger, jealousy and our inability to forgive others.

We are deaf when we refuse to recognize those who suffer in the world around us, and do not acknowledge glaring situations of inequality, injustice, poverty and the devastation of war.

We are deaf when we refuse to hear the cry of the unborn, of those whose lives are in danger because they are elderly, handicapped, and chronically ill, while others wish to end their lives out of misguided mercy.

Beethoven’s deafness

The German composer and virtuoso pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was one of the most loved composers of all time. What I never knew until recently was that Beethoven started losing his hearing at the age of 28. The deafness gave Beethoven insights into that which existed beyond that which could be seen and heard.

Beethoven was aware of the oneness of music with God from a very early age. And he was conscious of this while composing his music. “Ever since my childhood my heart and soul have been imbued with the tender feeling of goodwill. And I have always been inclined to accomplish great things.” In many of his letters Beethoven expresses his desire to serve God and humanity with his music. “Almighty God, you see into my heart … and you know it’s filled with loved for humanity and a desire to do good.”

Beethoven’s life is a paradox. On one hand, his solitary life was burdened by his deafness and on the other his spiritual insights flashed through his music. Many a times his deafness drove him to the edge and he cursed it. Yet, he also accepted it. It may have been out of frustration, but there was an acceptance of the divine will.

Today may the words Jesus spoke over the deaf man be addressed once again to each of us: “Ephphatha, be opened!” May our ears, eyes and hearts be opened to the Gospel!

[The readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-5; and Mark 7:31-37]

(Image: “Christ Healing the Blind” by El Greco)

Caught Up in the Externals

Christ and the Pharisees cropped

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – August 30, 2015

How many times have we heard, or perhaps even said ourselves: “So-and-so is a Pharisee.” “That person is so Pharisaical.” “They are caught up in Pharisaism.”

Today’s Gospel (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) offers us a good opportunity to understand the role of the Pharisees in Judaism, and why Jesus and others had such strong feelings against their behavior. Who were the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and who are their modern-day contemporaries?

Let me try to simplify a very complex topic to help us understand today’s Gospel. The Pharisees sought to make the Law come alive in every Jew, by interpreting its commandments in such a way as to adapt them to the various spheres of life.

The doctrine of the Pharisees is not opposed to that of Christianity. At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the “conservative party” within Judaism. They adhered strictly to the Torah and the Talmud and were outwardly very moral people. They were the leaders of the majority of the Jews and were revered by their followers for their religious zeal and dedication. Their main opposition was the party of the Sadducees, who were the “liberal party” within Judaism. The Sadducees were popular among the high-class minority.

Pharisees are mentioned when John the Baptist condemns them and the Sadducees in Matthew 3:7-10: “But seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Why would John the Baptizer say that the Pharisees, who were outwardly moral, zealous, and religious, were the offspring of vipers?

Jesus reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees as well. In Matthew 16:6, Jesus warned the disciples, “Watch and take heed from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” What were the disciples to beware of? Were they to beware of the immorality of the Pharisees and Sadducees?

Adherence to the law

The Pharisees in Jesus’ time promoted adherence to the law with a genuine interior response and advocated ordinary day-to-day spirituality. There were some Pharisees who were caught up only in external prescriptions, but they would have been criticized by other Pharisees even as the prophet Isaiah criticized hypocrisy in the past. Similarly, Jesus reprimanded aberrant Pharisees occasionally and had some clashes with them over his reinterpretation of the law. Jesus did not condemn Pharisaism as such or all Pharisees.

The Pharisees “relied on themselves, that they are righteous.” They believed that their own works — their doing what God commands and their abstaining from what God forbids — were what gained and maintained God’s favor and recommended them to God. The Pharisees self-righteously and hypocritically despised all others who did not meet the same standard of law keeping that they met.

They would not eat with the tax collectors and other sinners, because they were self-righteously aloof. They spent their time murmuring about who was eating and drinking with Jesus. Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

No etiquette lesson!

In today’s Gospel passage, (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), the Pharisees and scribes come from Jerusalem to investigate Jesus. Jesus abolishes the practice of ritual purity and the distinction between clean and unclean foods. The watchdogs of religious tradition cite Jesus for running a rather lax operation! Some of his disciples were eating with unwashed hands (Mark 7:2). Pharisees and scribes seize this infraction of the law and challenge Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (v. 5).

Jesus doesn’t respond with an etiquette lesson or an explanation of personal hygiene. Instead, he calls the Pharisees and scribes what they are: “you hypocrites” (v. 6). Quoting Isaiah, Jesus exposes the condition of the legalists’ hearts. They cling to human precepts and put their trust in the traditions of their elders over the commandment of God (v. 8).

Against the Pharisees’ narrow, legalistic, and external practices of piety in matters of purification (Mark 7:2-5), external worship (7:6-7), and observance of commandments, Jesus sets in opposition the true moral intent of the divine law (7:8-13).

But he goes beyond contrasting the law and Pharisaic interpretation of it. Mark 7:14-15 in effect sets aside the law itself in respect to clean and unclean food. Jesus’ point is well taken — and most Pharisees would have agreed — that internal attitude is more important than the externals of the law.

Pharisaical notion of sin

Jesus rejects the Pharisees’ and the scribes’ notion of sin. For Jesus, sin is the human spirit gone wrong, not a failure to distinguish between types of food. Jesus’ attitude toward sin is consistent with his views regarding the Sabbath. The letter of the law without compassion is dehumanizing.

We can see how Jesus wants his message to be made known to the Pharisees and scribes (vv. 1-8), the crowd (“Listen to me, all of you, and understand” vv. 14-15) and his disciples (vv. 21-23). It is good news to all that God doesn’t desire legalism. Instead, because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, the Father offers a new kind of life. One doesn’t have to worry about how well one is obeying the rules and keeping oneself clean.

Having been made clean, we are now free to use our hands to serve others. We might even get them dirty in the process. God gives freedom from the law. God offers his grace. That is the same good news we get to share as we serve the legal-minded, the crowds, and even the disciples of Jesus who are around us.

Contemporary Pharisees

Who are the modern-day Pharisees and their followers? The blind modern-day Pharisees and their blind followers are very religious, moral, zealous people. They strive to keep God’s law, and they are zealous in their religious duties. They diligently attend Church every Sunday. They are hardworking, outwardly upright citizens. They keep themselves from and preach against moral evil.

In addition to being moral and religious and zealous, modern-day Pharisees and their followers do not believe that salvation is conditioned on the work of Christ alone; instead, they believe that salvation is ultimately up to human efforts and what the sinner adds to Christ’s work!

In contrast to the modern-day Pharisees and their followers, true Christians are those who boast in Christ crucified and no other, meaning that they believe that Christ’s work ensured the salvation of all whom He represented and is the only thing that makes the difference between salvation and condemnation. They know that their own efforts form absolutely no part of their acceptance before God. They rest in Christ alone as their only hope, knowing that it is the work of Christ by the grace of God that guarantees salvation.

Jesus showed that only those who were sinners in need of a healer, who do not have righteousness in themselves, who are devoid of divine entitlement, who do not deserve to be in fellowship with God, are the ones He came to call to repentance.

The medicine of mercy

Whenever I hear Jesus’ words about legalism in today’s Gospel, I cannot help but recall with gratitude and emotion Pope John XXIII. In his historic, opening address on Oct. 11, 1962, at the beginning of the momentous Second Vatican Council, John XXIII made it clear that he did not call Vatican II to refute errors or to clarify points of doctrine. The Church today, he insisted, must employ the “medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”

The “Good Pope” as he was called, rejected the opinions of those around him who were “always forecasting disaster.” He referred to them as “prophets of gloom” who lacked a sense of history, which is “the teacher of life.” Divine Providence, he declared, was leading the world into a new and better order of human relations. “And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”

“Papa Roncalli” was a human being, more concerned with his faithfulness than his image, more concerned with those around him than with his own desires. With an infectious warmth and vision, he stressed the relevance of the church in a rapidly changing society and made the church’s deepest truths stand out in the modern world. He knew that the letter of the law without compassion is dehumanizing.

“Papa Giovanni” was beatified by his successor, John Paul II in 2000. In 2014 he was canonized together with John Paul by Pope Francis. May he soften the hearts of the modern-day Pharisees and Sadducees who are alive and well in the Church and world today!

[The readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]

(Image: “Christ and the Pharisees” by Ernst Zimmerman)

Do You Also Wish to Go Away?

Depart from Me cropped

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – August 23, 2015

In today’s Gospel (John 6:60-69), we hear of the mixed reactions of Jesus’ disciples to the Bread of Life discourse that we have heard over the past weeks. Jesus provided bread, but his bread is not like the manna that God provided in the wilderness; this bread is himself, his very life; and those who eat it “will live forever.”

As is often the case in John’s Gospel, small, ordinary words such as bread and life are loaded with theological meaning. Centuries of Eucharistic theology and reflection give us a way to understand these words, but at the time they were first spoken, they were more than puzzling — they probably were offensive to some people. Rightly reading the mood of his audience, Jesus says, “Does this offend you?”

Jesus’ challenge sets up a critical turning point in the Gospel. Not only are we told that one of Jesus’ followers would betray him; we also learn that some of those who had been following Jesus “turned back and no longer went about with him.”

The group gets smaller as the stakes get higher. Whatever explanation Jesus gives, some choose to walk away, thus revoking their loyalty. John uses the word “disciples” for those who turn back. These were not casual or seasonal listeners: They were disciples who knew him and were most likely known by him.

You too?

Then Jesus called the Twelve together and put the question to them straightforward: “Do you also wish to go away?”

Peter plays the role of spokesperson, just as he does in the other Gospels: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” While the words are different, this exchange is much the same as Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. There, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” — to which Peter responds, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-30). In both cases, the miracle of the feeding is the backdrop for the crucial question: who is Jesus really?

Paul’s marriage challenge

If we want to find out how the relationship between a man and woman in marriage should be according to the Bible, we must look at the relationship between Christ and the Church. In today’s second reading from the letter to the community at Ephesus, Paul exhorts married Christians to a strong mutual love.

At the origin and center of every Christian marriage, there must be love: “You, husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” Paul’s teaching on Christian marriage was difficult then as it is today.

Holding with Genesis 2:24 that marriage is a divine institution (Ephesians 5:31), Paul sees Christian marriage as taking on a new meaning symbolic of the intimate relationship of love between Christ and the Church. The wife should serve her husband in the same spirit as that of the church’s service to Christ (Ephesians 5:22, 24), and the husband should care for his wife with the devotion of Christ to the church (Ephesians 5:25-30).

Paul gives to the Genesis passage its highest meaning in the light of the union of Christ and the Church, of which Christ-like loyalty and devotion in Christian marriage are a clear reflection (Ephesians 5:31-33).

Parts of today’s Ephesians reading can be problematic, especially when one takes the line, “wives should be subordinate to their husbands,” out of context. Some have justified abuse of their spouse by taking this line (Ephesians 5:22) completely out of context. They have justified their bad behavior, but the passage (v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ: “Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church.”

The Scriptures cannot be used to justify violence toward, or abuse of, any other human being. The Gospel calls all of us to show mutual care and respect to one another. This must be present in any healthy marriage or other committed relationship.

This mutual love and respect must also extend to relationships between nations and other groups of people. It must be reflected in the structures and rules of our society. Mutuality and loving, selfless service are the keys to an authentic, loving marriage, and of just relationships.

Foundations of society

In his third encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” Benedict XVI wrote:

“It is thus becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person.

“In view of this, states are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character” (44).

Though “Caritas in Veritate” is touted as a response to the economic crisis of the time, but is much more than that. A defense of family, the sanctity of life, a caution to not undermine the importance of human dignity: The Holy Father prudently explores each area, dissecting each topic on its own, as well as relating it to economics.

Regardless of any economic aspect, the wisdom shared concerning these areas stands on its own. It serves us well to take note of this as we strive for authentic human development. This is not some antiquated teaching or remnant of the past. It is the living foundation for the present and the future of humanity. And like many of Jesus’ words, some will take offense at this and “walk away.”

Without married people, we cannot build the future of society and the Church. I am convinced beyond any doubt that from solid families will come forth vocations to serve the church. The “vocation crisis” in many parts of the world is due in great part to the break up and dissolution of the family.

A scandalous teaching

The depth and significance of Christ’s message, and the teaching of the Church, scandalizes, in the sense that it is often a stumbling block for the disbeliever and it is a test for the believer.

The theme of scandal, in the New Testament is connected with faith, as free acceptance of the mystery of Christ. Before the Gospel we cannot remain indifferent, lukewarm or evasive: The Lord calls each of us personally asking us to declare ourselves for him (cf. Matthew 10:32-33).

When we are faced with the difficult teachings of Jesus and the Church, do we also wish to go away? Is it not true that many times, because of the complexity of the issues, and the pressures of the society around us, we may wish to “go away?”

Peter’s response to Jesus’ question — “Do you also wish to go away?” — in today’s Gospel is striking. He doesn’t say, “yes, of course,” but he doesn’t quite say “no” either.

Instead, in good Gospel-style, he answers back with another question: “To whom else can we go?” It is not the most flattering answer in the world, but it is honest. Peter and the others stay with Jesus precisely because he has been a source of life for them. Jesus liberated them and given them a new life.

Following Jesus and the teaching of the Church may not always be easy, or pleasant, or even totally comprehensible, but when it comes to the eternal-life business, there’s not much out there in the way of alternatives.

This week let us not forget the words of Jesus: “Whoever eats me will live because of me.” Let us give witness to our Catholic faith and to God’s plan that marriage be the sacred union of one man and one woman, to family life as the foundation of our society.

Blessed are we if we do not take offense, but are led by these words to abundant life.

[The readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ephesians 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32; and John 6:60-69]

Health Food for the Soul

Bread from Heaven cropped

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – August 16, 2015

In chapter six of John’s Gospel (vv. 41-51), Jesus speaks of himself as “the living bread that came down from heaven” and invites his hearers to eat of this bread” — that is, to believe in him.

He promises that those who do so will have eternal life. Jesus compares himself to the manna that came down from heaven to sustain the people of Israel in the wilderness. It is a vivid image that certainly evokes important memories for the people of Israel.

Then in John 6:51, Jesus says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Then his hearers ask: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Did they respond in this way to give Jesus a chance to explain himself? Surely, they may have imagined, Jesus meant to say something else. After all, to eat someone’s flesh appears in the Bible as a metaphor for great hostility (Psalms 27:2; Zechariah 11:9). The drinking of blood was looked upon as an abomination forbidden by God’s law (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 3:17; Deuteronomy 12:23).

Yet Jesus responds to the question by further explaining his initial declaration with explicit terms: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

No observant Jew would consider eating human flesh.  We may ask ourselves: “Why couldn’t Jesus continue using such pleasant terms as “abiding,” “dwelling,” “living in me” terminology? Was he advocating pure cannibalism with such vivid imagery and language?

Flesh and blood

In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses strong language to express the indissoluble union and inextricable participation of one life in another. Jesus uses sacrificial language. The Torah requires ritual sacrifice of animals, and specifies how they are to be prepared and how their flesh is to be used. Some flesh is to be burned on the altar and other flesh is to be eaten.

Jesus makes his sacrifice in behalf of the world — not just Israel (see also John 3:16-17). The Hebrew expression “flesh and blood” means the whole person. To receive the whole Jesus entails receiving his flesh and blood. To encounter Jesus means, in part, to encounter the flesh and blood of him.

For those who receive Jesus, the whole Jesus, his life clings to their bones and courses through their veins. He can no more be taken from a believer’s life than last Saturday’s dinner can be extricated from one’s body.

True reception of Jesus

In our cerebral approach to religion we often assume that what really matters is believing some important religious dogmas or truths. Receiving Jesus can be reduced to a matter of intellectual assent. There are times, however, when we can be particularly grateful that the presence of Christ is not something that can be recognized cerebrally, but can be received by other means as well.

The bread that Jesus used to feed the 5,000 on the mountaintop was something less than true bread, because it satisfied the people’s hunger only momentarily. By way of contrast, Jesus’ flesh and blood are true food because “whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (v. 51) — and “have eternal life” (v. 54).

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (v. 51a).  This “living bread” parallels the “living water” that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman (4:10).  To eat of this bread, in this context, means the once-and-for-all action of accepting or believing in Christ.

Historical background

It is important to be aware of two things that were happening at the time of the writing of this Gospel that might have influenced the John to emphasize the eating of Jesus flesh and the drinking of his blood.

The first was the influence of Docetic and Gnostic heresies, both of which considered flesh to be evil and denied that Christ could have a physical body. The second was Jewish discrimination against Christian believers. Christians who observed the Lord’s Supper were likely to be banned from synagogues.

The Eucharist fulfils the meaning hidden in the gift of manna. Jesus thus presents himself as the true and perfect fulfillment of what was symbolically foretold in the Old Covenant. Another of Moses’ Acts has a prophetic value: To quench the thirst of the people in the desert, he makes water flow from the rock. On the “feast of Tabernacles,” Jesus promises to quench humanity’s spiritual thirst: “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as Scripture says, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38).

The ways we eat

Our eating style reflects and affects who and what we are. It identifies our approach to life. If we examine various societies and cultures, we see that each has its traditional foods and food rituals. “I am of Italian descent. I often eat spaghetti, lasagna, tortellini alla panna or pizza,” or “I am a real American. I eat hamburgers, hot dogs, steak, coke, and French fries.”

“I am Québecois. I feast on poutine and drink maple syrup.” The French eat crepes, Belgians eat waffles, Chinese eat rice, Palestinians and Israelis eat falafel, the Swiss eat chocolate, and Eskimos eat whale blubber. In short, the “way we eat” reveals how we identify ourselves. It reflects and often determines our worldview, our values, and our entire approach to life.

Foods are much more than just a collection of nutrients; they are a wealth of influences and connotations. Rare foods and spices are treasured as special culinary delights. Some foods are worshiped in various cultures as having an unusual holiness or are avoided altogether. The type of food we choose can affect our moods. Hot, spicy, or stimulating foods may influence many of us toward hot-temperedness or nervousness. Cooling foods can relax us and give us peace of mind. Foods can help us celebrate and can comfort us when we mourn. They are a sign of love and are a means of uniting people on many occasions.

The “ways we eat” are an important part of our heritage. The soul is not nourished by physical bread, as the body is. The food we eat is actually a combination of both a physical and a spiritual entity. The body is nourished by the physical aspects, or nutrients, contained in the foods we eat; the soul is nourished by the spiritual power which enlivens the physical substance of all matter, including food.

Catholic rather than catabolic?

The actual phrase “you are what you eat” didn’t emerge in the English language until the 1920s and 30s, when the nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, a strong believer in the idea that food controls health, developed the Catabolic Diet. In 1942, Lindlahr published “You Are What You Eat: How to Win and Keep Health With Diet.” From that moment onward, the phrase entered the public consciousness.

For all who seek the presence of Christ, Jesus’ teaching in John’s Gospel is good news indeed: “We are what we eat.” We become what receive in the Eucharist. This week, let us examine our spiritual diets and look at the things that truly give us life, and those things that are junk foods that don’t lead us to eternal life.

[The readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; and John 6:51-58]

Mount Tabor, Blessed Paul VI and the Feast of the Transfiguration

During my years in the Holy Land, my frequent visits to Mount Tabor always left me with a great sense of awe, wonder, mystery, fear, and reverence before Jesus. Each time I visited Mt. Tabor and the beautiful church depicting the three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, I was also very aware of the memory of Blessed Pope Paul VI who climbed Tabor as a pilgrim in 1964, and had a very special place for the mystery of the Transfiguration in his own prayer and pontificate.

The theological meaning of the Transfiguration is central to our understanding of the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. In the past, every icon painter began his or her career by reproducing the scene of the Transfiguration. It has been said that the destiny of every Christian is written between two mountains: from Calvary to the mountain of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is a celebration of the presence of Christ which takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do. God penetrates them with the life of the Spirit and acts upon those regions and gives them his own face.

August 6th this year marks the thirty-seventh anniversary of the death of Pope Pope Paul VI. He closed his eyes on “this stupendous, dramatic temporal and earthly scene” on the very feast that so marked his life and Petrine ministry in the Church. I was on a Basilian Formation Retreat on Strawberry Island in 1978 when we got word that Paul VI had died at Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome. The era of excitement and newness that so marked Vatican II seemed to be coming to an end. At his funeral, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri described him with these words:

His greatness of soul was seen in his lively intelligence and a heart filled with goodness that opened up to the spiritual needs of his sons and daughters… He became a real prince of peace. He established with pressing solicitude a continuing dialogue with all peoples. He gave his attention with all affection and hope to the weak and defenseless, the poor and those in want of every assistance. He conversed with all in order to strengthen them in faith…

At times we are very critical of the Church, and even dismiss Church leaders and their messages without giving them a fair hearing. History is now teaching us that the patience and wisdom of Pope Paul VI, especially in the aftermath and implementation of the Second Vatican Council, was a great gift to God’s people and to the world. Pope Paul VI did not see dialogue merely as an instrument but as a method. He was so close to people, especially to those who were distant or who opposed him in theory or in practice. He also loved the Holy Land, and desired that the greatest possible number of people should have the experience that was his as a pilgrim to the Land of Jesus in 1964.

Last October 19, 2014, at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family at the Vatican, Pope Francis proclaimed Pope Paul VI blessed. In his homily at the Mass of Beatification in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said:

“When we look to this great Pope, this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle, we cannot but say in the sight of God a word as simple as it is heartfelt and important: thanks! Thank you, our dear and beloved Pope Paul VI! Thank you for your humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his Church!

In his personal journal, the great helmsman of the Council wrote, at the conclusion of its final session: “Perhaps the Lord has called me and preserved me for this service not because I am particularly fit for it, or so that I can govern and rescue the Church from her present difficulties, but so that I can suffer something for the Church, and in that way it will be clear that he, and no other, is her guide and saviour”. In this humility the grandeur of Blessed Paul VI shines forth: before the advent of a secularized and hostile society, he could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom – and at times alone – to the helm of the barque of Peter, while never losing his joy and his trust in the Lord.”

Now this great, holy man and disciple of the Lord lives in the Resurrection of Jesus, in whose glorious Transfiguration sign he closed his eyes some 37 years ago. Blessed Paul VI let us feel on earth the joy and glory that awaits each of us in the New Jerusalem. Christ’s transfiguration was in the past. The God, whose Light breaks into the earth on this feast, is present. Let our prayers today be that the world will see the Light, the Light of healing and reconciliation. Let us strive to be counted among those who listen to Christ’s Word and are transfigured by it.


The following is one of our feature videos by Cheridan Sanders for the World Meeting of Families. Born Giovanni Battista Montini, Paul VI is affectionately known as the pilgrim pope. The Church that we know today is deeply shaped by the Second Vatican Council and is in many ways a reflection of Paul VI’s Pontificate.

Elijah’s Power Food, and Ours

Elijah Bol cropped

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – August 9, 2015

I have always loved reading the Elijah cycle in the Book of Kings. The first book, Chapter 18, portrays Elijah as an invincible prophet who fearlessly stands up to king and prophets, but he remains extremely so human in the process! Today’s first reading from 1 Kings 19 presents us with the great prophet who is vulnerable and subject to discouragement and fear.

Let us situate today’s story in 1 Kings. In Chapter 19 we have the aftermath of Elijah’s brilliant victory in the contest with Jezebel and the priests of Baal atop Mount Carmel. Just when Elijah should have been triumphant, he receives a message telling him of Jezebel’s murderous intentions, and he is “afraid” (v. 3). Elijah is persecuted for his faithfulness and for demanding total obedience to one God because such loyalty threatens the powers that be who have their own ideas about whom or what people should worship.

Israel’s fiery prophet immediately flees south into the wilderness of the Negev Desert. His mood is one of defeat and desolation. After all he had done for the God of Israel, his victory now seems vitiated. He has not been given divine protection he was promised and he only wants to die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” There, in the barren desert, Elijah lies down under “a solitary broom tree” and asks God to take his life, claiming that he is no better than his fathers. Elijah bemoans his discouragement at his lack of success in encouraging the Israelites to be faithful.

Energy from above

Suddenly, a messenger (angel) of the Lord awakens him and tells him to eat and drink. Whereas the wicked Jezebel sends a messenger of death to Elijah, the Lord God of Israel sends him a messenger of life, who serves Elijah food and water, two essentials for survival in the harsh wilderness.

Elijah eats, drinks, but then falls asleep again, indicating that he has not yet recovered from his lethargy or depression. The messenger wakes Elijah again and urges him to eat and drink, this time providing a reason, “or the journey will be too much for you” (19:7).

What can we learn from Elijah in the desert wilderness? Here is a man who has given his life totally in faithfulness to the God of Israel. He has been totally “zealous for the Lord.” His desperate cry, “I am no better than my ancestors” reveals a man who no longer believes in himself. He had believed himself to be a spectacularly exemplary servant of God. No one could outdo him in his zealousness. Now he believes it has been all in vain!

Dark night of the soul

Yet the God of Israel does not give up on Elijah. God’s teaching moment begins when Elijah’s famed resourcefulness runs out. Angels from God are needed to feed him in his weakness. Then God leads him through a time of reflection in the wilderness.

His journeying through Negev wilderness lasts for the significant time of forty days and forty nights. As the Hebrews wandered earlier in the wilderness in search of God, this most zealous prophet and servant of the Lord is led on a similar journey. Eventually Elijah comes to the sacred mountain of Horeb, where he spends the night in a dark cave. The dark cave and the dark night are reflective of his “dark night of the soul.”

Mount Horeb is in some Old Testament traditions the name for Mount Sinai, the mountain associated with God’s appearance. Forty days and nights in connection with Mount Sinai recalls the two sojourns of Moses on Sinai for forty days and nights (Exodus 24:18; 34:28).

The point of this moving story is not just that Elijah makes a physical trip to Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai, but rather something much more significant. In an act of sheer grace God intervenes, provides the prophet with life-giving food and water, and suggests a pilgrimage to mountain that is the place forever associated with the source and essence of Israelite faith.

The Elijah story speaks powerfully to those who are worn-out, fearful, or in need of renewal and recommitment to their original call. The story suggests a way forward — eat and drink of God’s life-giving sustenance, return to the core of faith, listen for God’s still small voice. That may be the way to find new energy, new vision, and a new sense of purpose. Elijah must learn that God is not encountered in the sound and fury of loud and spectacular events. God will not be conjured up by the zealous or boisterous activity of the prophet who now stands quiet and broken atop the Lord’s mountain.

Elijah discovers that God is encountered when the activity ceases and the words stop, when the heart is sad and the stomach is filled with pangs of hunger. When Elijah’s mind and heart are finally empty of ambition and self-promotion, God is ultimately heard.

Bread of Life

For Elijah, for Jesus, and for us, bread is fundamental to life. Bread stands at the center of life. Bread is life. And in today’s Gospel (Jn. 6:41-51) we hear about Jesus who is the Bread of Life. Christ is life: He is the bread of life. To eat Jesus’ body and to drink his blood means more than just to believe in him. The image of Jesus as the “bread of life” is at the heart of what renewal in the mystery of Christ is about.

When Jesus says that he is “the bread of life” his emphasis is not on the bread as such, but on himself as the ‘I” who declares it. Jesus is saying that what we long for to nourish our hungers is found in himself, the “I” who identifies his life with the bread he gives (cf. in 6:51). Jesus is more than mere bread for our bodily hunger. He is more than love to satisfy our emotional needs. He is the word that will satisfy our hunger for truth. He is bread for life itself; the total satisfaction for all our human hungers.

For all baptized believers the Eucharist is the primary way of celebrating and sustaining contact with the risen Lord. Let us consider for a moment the highly symbolic actions of Jesus as he gives us the living bread from heaven. Jesus took the bread. He has taken the bread of our lives and joined it with his own. Jesus blessed the bread. He has blessed us with his life. Baptism was the first moment of that blessing. Every other moment of contact with Jesus Christ is a deepening of that blessing.

Jesus broke the bread. Like Jesus, there are moments in our lives when we feel hurt, broken, lost, discouraged, disillusioned, empty, rejected and without energy and hope. We are like Elijah under the broom tree, waiting for our life to end. Yet even in these fractured moments, the Lord Jesus is present to us.

Jesus gave the bread. He gave of his time and his touch. He gave encouragement, but also his challenge. He gave both word and bread to feed and nourish. He gave most fully in giving himself. He gave till there was no more to give, declaring his life and work complete with the words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Then bowing his head, he handed over his spirit, the same spirit he gave us when he appeared risen from the dead (cf. in 20:23).

In life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has given us a profound example, and challenges us to do the same. “Go and do likewise” is both a challenge and a commission. It is the commission to live the mystery of being bread blessed and broken for others. When life seems to be breaking apart, we should not forget the lesson of the bread broken for us. It cannot be broken without being firmly held in both hands. When it comes to the breaking of bread, or of our lives, both hold the challenge of the mystery of faith.

Let us pray that our sharing in the Eucharistic bread and wine may transform us more and more into what we eat and drink, and that we might truly become living bread, broken and shared with all people.

[The readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; and John 6:41-51]

(Image: “Elijah Fed By An Angel” by Ferdinand Bol)

Give Us This Bread Always!

Last Supper Bouveret cropped

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – August 2, 2015

We can certainly understand God’s frustration with his people in today’s first reading from Exodus (16:2-4,12-15).

The God of Israel has just delivered his people from slavery and has set them on the way to their promised land. Yet after crossing the Red Sea and celebrating their victory, the first recorded action in the Sinai proves to be grumbling and dissatisfaction, first over the bitter water at Mara (Exodus 15:22-27), and then more complaining and nostalgic longing for the fleshpots in the land of Egypt, where they were able to eat their fill!

Into this setting of ingratitude and lamentation, God rains down bread from heaven (manna) and quail for their food. The Exodus passage (16:2-4,12-15) contrasts the nonbeliever (who grumbles that the manna and quail are meager nourishment) with the believer (who sees these as God’s generous gifts to the hungry).

A different kind of food

In today’s Gospel text (John 6:24-35) that follows the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, Jesus says to the crowds who were seeking him: “Truly, truly I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you” (John 6:26-27).

Jesus’ hearers continue the conversation and ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28). Jesus answers: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). It is an exhortation to have faith in the Son of Man, in the giver of the food that does not perish. Without faith in him whom the Father has sent, it is not possible to recognize and accept this gift which does not pass away.

The miraculous multiplication of the loaves had not evoked the expected response of faith in those who had been eyewitnesses of that event. They wanted a new sign: “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat'” (John 6:30-31). The disciples gathered around Jesus expecting a sign like the manna, which their ancestors had eaten in the desert. But Jesus exhorts them to expect something more than a mere repetition of the miracle of the manna, to expect a different kind of food. He says: “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Jn 6:32-33).

Along with physical hunger there is within each of us another hunger, a more basic hunger, which cannot be satisfied by ordinary food. It is a hunger for life, a hunger for eternity, nostalgia for God. The sign of the manna was the proclamation of the coming of Christ who was to satisfy our hunger for eternity by Himself becoming the “living bread” that “gives life to the world.”

What is so startling about Jesus’ remarks in this discourse is that he is not claiming to be another Moses, or one more messenger in along line of human prophets. In giving us the bread of life, Jesus does not offer temporary nourishment, he gives us the eternal bread of his word. It will not pass away. It will nourish and give life forever. Jesus is this bread, and in offering to share it with us he calls us to faith in him.

Jesus invites us to “come to him,” “believe in him,” “look upon him,” “be drawn to him,” “hear him,” and to “learn of him.” All of these verbs invite the active response of our faith (cf. John 6:36, 37, 40, 44, 45). His word is nourishment for our faith.

Those who heard Jesus ask him to fulfill what had been proclaimed by the sign of the manna, perhaps without being conscious of how far their request would go: “Lord, give us this bread always” (John 6:34). How eloquent is this request! How generous and how amazing is its fulfillment! “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”

Grumblings and ideologies

How difficult it was for Jesus’ hearers to make this passage from the sign to the mystery indicated by that sign, from daily bread to the bread “which endures to eternal life”! Nor is it easy for us, the people of the 21st century to make such passages in our own life, from sign to mystery.

At times our grumblings and murmurings about the Eucharist and the Church often rise to fevered pitch, not much different than the grumbling and murmuring of Israel in the desert. Excessive tensions arising from Church politics, gender issues, liturgical practices, language — all of these influence today’s Eucharist — and can lead us to a feeling of God’s absence.

Our Eucharistic celebrations are not taking place at Massah and Meribah — places of murmuring in the desert. We are often stuck in endless arguments between devotion and liturgy, or in a constant dispute between charity and justice. When devotion is treated as the enemy of liturgy and charity as the betrayer of justice, or when liturgy is reduced to private devotion and justice not recognized as constitutive to the Gospel.

Adoration rediscovered

Here is one concrete example to illustrate the above point about liturgy and devotion. Many of my generation have responded very negatively to the younger generation’s rediscovery of Eucharistic adoration and devotion.

Benedict XVI put a great emphasis on Eucharistic adoration and devotion in Catholic life. Many of us have failed to see that our public worship is intimately related to adoration, so much so that that they could be considered as one. Piety and devotion can be springboards to mature faith. Each time we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist as the Christian community, we profess, together with the whole Church, our faith in Christ the Eucharist, in Christ — the living bread and the bread of life.

During the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City that took place in 2008, then-Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, now Cardinal-Archbishop of Manila, delivered a remarkable catechesis that concluded with a profound explanation of the meaning of authentic Adoration of the Eucharist.

Bishop Tagle said:

“In the Eucharist, the Church joins Jesus in adoring the God of life. But the practice of Eucharistic adoration enlivens some features of worship. We believe that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist continues beyond the liturgy. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament connotes being present, resting, and beholding. In adoration, we are present to Jesus whose sacrifice is ever present to us. Abiding in him, we are assimilated more deeply into his self-giving. Beholding Jesus, we receive and are transformed by the mystery we adore. Eucharistic adoration is similar to standing at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, being a witness to his sacrifice of life and being renewed by it. The sacrifice or spiritual worship of Jesus on the cross is his supreme act of adoration.”

This week let us ask ourselves: What does Jesus’ Eucharistic presence mean for us? Does our participation in the weekly (and for some, daily) celebration of the Lord’s meal transform us into people of gratitude, loving kindness and justice? Let us consider what Jesus requires of us who partake of the Eucharistic banquet. In what ways does the Eucharist symbolize the life we are living and our life symbolize the Eucharist? How do we express gratitude? Is the Eucharist the spiritual exercise giving direction to our life?

May our Eucharistic celebrations continue to transform our parish communities and the society around us into a civilization of love! May they nourish in us a hunger and thirst for justice. May our longing for the Eucharist make us ever more patient and kind with one another. Let us pray that we may truly become what we receive in the Eucharistic meal.

[The readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; and John 6:24-35]

(Image: The Last Supper by Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret)

Transformed from Misery by Mercy

Mary Magdalene Jesus cropped

On the Feast of Mary Magdalene – July 22

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” The famous maxim first appeared in the letters of St. Augustine, when he wrote, “With love for humanity and hatred of sins.” Mohandas Ghandi later used it in his autobiography when he wrote: “Hate the sin and not the sinner.” But I can’t think of any figure who better exemplifies the essence of this phrase than Saint Mary Magdalene, whose feast the Church celebrate today.

What lessons can we learn from the life of Mary Magdalene? The Gospels reveal a woman marked by a past of demons, who encountered the forgiveness of Jesus and was forever changed. For Mary Magdalene, Jesus changed everything. Jesus was everything. His healing power in her life meant that she could no longer remain her old self, she was transformed, made new in the love of her Saviour. He set her free of the demons that possessed her so that she could pursue a path of discipleship, closely following Jesus and being part of the community of His friends.

What does this mean for us? I think each of us has experienced how easy it can be to become discouraged, disappointed, ashamed, and despairing when we see our own weakness. We can become mired in guilt, anger, and regret when we look at our own frailty and inadequacies. We spin a cocoon of negative emotion that has the power to paralyze us in our own selves. But Jesus never discourages us. He alone is perfect, and calls us to that same perfection. His power propels us onwards to the destiny for which we were created: an eternity of beholding His face, as Mary Magdalene did that bright Easter morning. Mary Magdalene shows us that there is something greater than our sinfulness, our shortcomings and the strife they cause. It is the Man she mistook for the Gardener, and His power to forgive and save us. We are miserable, but He is merciful, and His heart goes out to us. This is the very meaning of Mercy.

Mary Magdalene could have fixated on her demons and remained in the cycle of sin that was dominating her life. Instead, she reached out to Jesus, and allowed Him to reach out to her. She allowed his love to be more powerful than her sins, and her debilitating demons gave way to exemplary discipleship. She heard His call to: “Come, follow me.” And when you do, “Do not be afraid.”

For the Christian, our life-changing encounter with the merciful love of God through Jesus Christ is not just a one-time experience but a constant renewal brought about by the transformative power of Christ at work in our lives. This love is offered to us each day of our lives, and especially when we fail, fall, and flounder. Do we receive it? Do we accept it? Are we open to it? Do we trust in it? Do we allow it to renew us and urge us on? Does it leave us forever changed?

Mary Magdalene had not one demon but seven. Her story is relevant for us no matter what our demons may be. She was a sinner but more than that, she was loved. She allowed her life to become a response of love to the one who loved her first. Weeping she would remain with him at the foot of the the Cross, despairing as he hung dying for the world. “While it was still dark” on the first day of the week, burdened with tears and spices for burial she would venture early to His empty tomb, astonished to encounter Him anew. Especially as we approach the Jubilee Year for Mercy called by Pope Francis, let us encounter Him anew with her, trusting again in His mercy and proclaiming with her: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18) By Him may we be forever changed.

It Is Never Enough, Until We Give It Away

Kurelek cropped

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – July 26, 2015

Today’s Old Testament reading from 2 Kings 4:42-44 is a fitting prelude to John’s version of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (6:1-21). The author of Kings tells us about one of Elisha’s servants who doubts that 20 loaves of barley is enough to feed 100 people. Elisha, however, trusts the promise of the Lord and overrules his servant. The miracle vindicates Elisha’s trust. The numbers fed are modest in comparison with the feeding of the 5,000 in John’s Gospel!

Bread is a symbol of the person and work of Jesus in John’s great Eucharistic teaching in Chapter 6, and this Eucharistic theme continues over the next four weeks of Scripture readings. Today’s Gospel is John’s marvelous story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The various accounts of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, two each in Mark and in Matthew and one each in Luke and in John, indicate the wide interest of the early Church in their Eucharistic gatherings (e.g., Mark 6:41; 8:6; 14:22); and recall also the sign of bread in Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:3-16; Psalm 78:24-25; 105:40; Wisdom 16:20-21. The miraculous event, recounted by the four evangelists, points forward to the idea of life in God’s kingdom as a banquet at which the Messiah will preside.

Unique perspectives

Mark’s readers saw this incident as an anticipation of the Last Supper (14:22) and the messianic banquet, both of which were celebrated in the community’s Eucharists.

Matthew’s addition of the number of people present and fed is significant, because the total figure could well have come to 20,000 or 30,000 people and the miracle is repeated again in 15:38. The sheer numbers of those fed give the feeding stories a distinct social character.

Luke links his feeding account with Jesus’ prediction of his passion and his instructions about bearing one’s cross daily (9:18-27). To celebrate the Eucharist in memory of Jesus (22:19) is to share not only his mission (9:1-6) but also his dedication and destiny, symbolized by the cross (9:18-27). The Eucharist is part of a journey in Luke’s Gospel, nourishing and strengthening us for continuing faithfully in our way of life.

Johannine details

John’s multiplication story is a central part of Jesus’ important teaching on the Bread of Life (6:1-15). This story is immediately followed by Jesus’ walking on water. John’s multiplication story has been expanded in the introduction by the addition of 1) the vague chronological marker “after these things”; 2) the specification of the place, Lake of Tiberias. This is also the place of the appearance of the risen Lord in John 21:1; 3) the motivation for the crowd — they have seen Jesus’ healings (signs); 4) the reference to the impending “Passover of the Jews.”

As in other Johannine miracle stories, the initiative for this miracle clearly lies with Jesus. Philip does not perceive that Jesus’ question is an appeal to his faith and simply refers to the amount of money required. Jesus teases Philip to have bigger dreams and better hopes rather than to reduce them down to reality. In verses 14-15, the crowds respond correctly that Jesus is the messianic prophet, but misunderstand what they are really saying. The true nature of Jesus’ kingship, which is not that of a national liberator, will only be revealed at his trial (18:33-37; 19:12-15).

One unique Johannine touch is the role of the young boy in this miracle story. What human reason did not dare to hope became a reality with Jesus thanks to a young boy’s generous heart.

Living bread

The multiplication of the loaves is an enduring image of the Eucharist. Jesus wanted to use this humble gift of a few loaves and fishes to feed a multitude, and more (12 baskets were left!). Logic and human reason often say to us, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.” But Jesus asks that even such meager provisions as these, together with the trust and generosity of disciples of every age, be stretched to their limits. “Let’s see. It will never be enough until we start to give it away.”

For the believer, Jesus is much more than a miracle worker; he himself is heavenly food. The believer will never again experience hunger or thirst. As bread sustains life, Jesus will sustain all who approach him in faith. To acknowledge Jesus as the living bread is the ultimate expression of God’s love in Christ’s death and glorification.

Prolonging the miracle

Whenever I read the miracle stories of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, I recall these stirring words from Pope John Paul II’s 1998 Apostolic Letter “Dies Domini” — On Keeping the Lord’s Day (No. 71). These words illustrate what lies at the heart of today’s miracle of the loaves and fishes and challenge each of us about our duties to truly put the Eucharist into practice in daily life:

“The teachings of the Apostles struck a sympathetic chord from the earliest centuries, and evoked strong echoes in the preaching of the Fathers of the Church.

“St. Ambrose addressed words of fire to the rich who presumed to fulfill their religious obligations by attending church without sharing their goods with the poor, and who perhaps even exploited them: ‘You who are rich, do you hear what the Lord God says? Yet you come into church not to give to the poor but to take instead.’

“St. John Chrysostom is no less demanding: ‘Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,’ and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me’ … What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices, when he is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger, and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.’

“These words effectively remind the Christian community of the duty to make the Eucharist the place where fraternity becomes practical solidarity, where the last are the first in the minds and attentions of the brethren, where Christ himself — through the generous gifts from the rich to the very poor — may somehow prolong in time the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.”

Questions for reflection

What does Jesus’ Eucharistic presence mean for us? Does our participation in the weekly and daily celebrations of the Lord’s meal transform us into people of gratitude, loving kindness, justice and charity? In what ways does the Eucharist symbolize the life we are living and our life symbolize the Eucharist? How do we express gratitude? Is the Eucharist giving direction to our life?

Do we not often wonder where we shall get the means to accomplish what seems good and necessary? Today’s miracle reveals the extraordinary resources of life within each of us. In order to sustain our hopes, we must believe in miracles. We must feast on the Body and Blood of the Lord for our real energy and life.

[The readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 4:1-6; and John 6:1-15]

(Image: Mural of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by William Kurelek at St. Thomas More College, Saskatoon)

Jesus, the Compassionate Shepherd of God

Jesus Shepherd Tissot cropped

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – July 19, 2015

The themes of sheep and shepherding flow though the Scripture readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). The moving Gospel story of Jesus having compassion on the crowds that were “like sheep without a shepherd” helps us to focus on his ministry of teaching, reconciling and shepherding.

Literature of antiquity often referred to the person responsible for guiding a community as a shepherd. Likewise, the Old Testament frequently described the Lord himself as the shepherd of his people. Individuals invoked him as “my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1), and the community prayed to him as the “Shepherd of Israel” (Psalm 80:1).

In the New Testament, the image of the shepherd expresses great authority and responsibility. Nourishing the flock means that the shepherd must protect them from heresy, ever ready to defend the sheep from marauders. John tells us that Jesus himself proclaimed that he fulfilled Israel’s hope for the coming of the good shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

When Jesus withdraws with his disciples to a deserted place to rest, he attracts a great number of people to follow them. Toward this people of the new exodus Jesus is moved with pity; he satisfies their spiritual hunger by teaching them many things, thus gradually showing himself the faithful shepherd of a new Israel.

When the Scriptures describe Jesus as having pity on his flock because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” in Mark 6:30-34, such an image is not original to Jesus in the Gospels. The image is drawn from Ezekiel 34, where God unleashes his anger at the shepherds of Israel who have fattened themselves on the weak and vulnerable, instead of caring for them (Ezekiel 34:10-12).

Sheep without a shepherd

Jesus’ compassion is much more than a fleeting or temporary feeling of regret or sorrow. It is rather a deep anguish, a gut-wrenching type of anxiety and sorrow over the condition of people. Jesus was describing the spiritual lives of those who were living outside of the salvation so freely offered by God. Jesus felt gut-wrenching anguish over the souls of these people who were facing spiritual starvation without someone to feed them, teach them, and lead them to true spiritual nourishment. They were in danger without a shepherd to protect them from false teaching. Like sheep without the good shepherd, they were alone and vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one, who roams around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

“Like sheep without a shepherd” is an accurate description of the spiritual lives of many 21st-century Christians in the world today. The expression describes many of our contemporaries who are directionless, helpless, and very vulnerable to the seductions and attacks of the evil one. “Sheep without a shepherd” are more than just a little lost. They are more than just a little vulnerable. They are facing danger and destruction.

Jesus’ Compassion

Jesus saw the sick and his compassion healed them. He saw those possessed by demons and his compassion freed them. He told the story of a king who was owed a huge debt by his servant. When the servant could not pay, the king ordered him thrown into slavery, along with his family. When the servant pleaded for mercy the king “had compassion” on him and forgave the huge debt.

Jesus spoke about a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. That poor fellow fell among thieves who beat him, robbed him and left him to die. Two high-ranking religious officials passed by him, but a Samaritan stopped and “had compassion” on him. He bandaged the man’s wounds and carried him to an inn where he nursed him through the night. The next day he paid the bill and gave the innkeeper his credit line, saying, “If he needs more, charge it to me.”

Who can forget the thought-provoking story of the younger son who took his inheritance and squandered it in loose living? One day he “came to himself” and returned to his father’s house, not hoping to be restored as a son, but wanting only to be hired as a servant. His father saw him coming and “had compassion” on him. Before the son could even utter his speech of repentance, the father placed on him a ring and robe and shoes and called for a royal feast.

The compassion of Jesus heals and feeds, forgives huge debts, nurses hurt bodies back to health and welcomes home sinners, restoring them to a place of honor. Jesus will not let his compassion stay with God or in heaven. He commands us: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”

Jesus did a lot more than just feel compassion for those in today’s Gospel story from Mark 6. His strong emotion moved him to act, far beyond what any shepherd would be expected to do for his sheep. The authentic shepherd, who models his or her life on Jesus, must love the people entrusted to him and imitate Jesus.

Where will we find such compassion for ourselves?

From time to time, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves among those in need, those who are like sheep without a shepherd. At times we ask ourselves: “Where on earth can we find this compassion to share with others?” I have learned that only in solitude before God, faced only with ourselves, can we learn the compassion of God. Perhaps it is not by accident that in the thick of his ministry and burdened by the unrelenting needs and demands of the crowd, Jesus called his disciples to join him in the desert: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

Could it not be the same for us, that away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday demands, we retreat in order to wrestle with our own hearts before God? And there we learn mercy and become in our day bearers of the compassion of Christ.

Leading people out

One of the most powerful and moving reflections on the theme of compassionate shepherding is found in the homily of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during the Mass of Inauguration of his Petrine Ministry on April 24, 2005:

“The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: for him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love.

“There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.

“The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.”

This week may our prayer be for awareness, compassion and courage. Let us beg the Lord to make us more aware of the vast and growing deserts in which our contemporaries, and perhaps even we are living today. Let us ask the Lord to give us his compassion for those who truly are sheep without shepherds. And let us pray for courage to help lead our friends out of their deserts and into the places of life and friendship with Christ, the Good Shepherd.

[The readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; and Mark 6:30-34]

(Image: “Jesus the Good Shepherd” by James Tissot)