Archive | August, 2009

The Prophetic Body of Christ- Reflection for Mass of August 9, 2009

9 Aug

Sunday, August 9, 2009
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30- 5:2; John 6:41-51 

Prophecy is a difficult, even dangerous, undertaking. Elijah knew this well. He contended with the unprecedented depravity of King Ahab who, as Scripture recounts, had done “evil in the sight of the Lord more than any of his predecessors.” (1) Just when Ahab would have been hard-pressed to do any worse, he married Jezebel, who proceeded to murder all the prophets of the Lord and to impose the worship of foreign idols upon Israel. Elijah was the only one of the Lord’s prophets to escape Jezebel’s rampage. He was left to end a crippling famine and to turn Israel back toward its God by slaying Jezebel’s idolatrous army of false prophets. Jezebel responded with renewed wrath, forcing Elijah to flee for his life into the wilderness. (2)

Neither the length of the journey, nor the heat, nor fatigue threatened Elijah’s resolve to prophesy; Elijah felt like a failure. He had brought a drought to an end and shown Israel’s God to be greater than the imported pagan deities. Yet, there he was, a fugitive under a flimsy broom tree in the desert. His end would be no more glorious than that of his ancestors. Therefore Elijah did not pray to God for the strength to continue. Instead, in his hopelessness he wished to die. (3)

Perhaps many of us can relate to such despair, even as deep as that of Elijah. We might feel underappreciated for our work. We’re too old, too young, too sad, or too sick. We complain bitterly. We struggle spiritually, and little consolation comes from prayer or from going to Mass. We feel like we’ve failed. But even total failure is redeemed by our God. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus delivers an astounding promise: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (4) This bread is not perishable, as Jesus explains, like the manna that was provided from Heaven in Moses’ time. The Israelites ate that manna, “and they died.” (5) Jesus is the everlasting, “living bread that comes down from Heaven.” (6) But, as Jesus’ allusion to His flesh indicates, eternal life can only come through the Cross.

Christ crucified is the ultimate symbol of complete failure, but only by the Cross are we drawn forever to the Father with the Risen Jesus. St. John’s use of the verb “to draw” (7), in the context of the Father drawing us to Jesus, is remarkable, but its significance is easily missed. The next occurrence of this verb in Greek in John’s Gospel is when Jesus predicts His death: “When I am lifted up… I will draw everyone to Myself.” (8) The third appearance of this verb is less obvious in English because of differing translation; on the sea of Tiberias after the Resurrection, when Jesus tells the seven disciples to cast their net over the right side of the boat after a long night fishing without a catch, there are so many fish that the disciples are barely able “to pull” the net to shore. (9) But, as the net is pulled to shore but does not tear under the strain, so we, redeemed from sinful failure by a loving and merciful God, are drawn to Our Father by Christ who died and is risen for us.

The three instances of this verb, “to draw” or “to pull”, in the Gospel of John emphasize three related themes: the Passion, the Resurrection, and prophecy. The last of these stands out more in conjunction with today’s first reading centered on Elijah, who stands for the prophets. Last week’s first reading featured Moses, symbolic of the law. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and of the prophets. His Bread of Life Discourse- Chapter six of John- from which we read for four weeks in a row this month, superimposes a fourth theme upon the previous three: that of the Eucharist. When we receive the Eucharist, we profess our belief in the Body and Blood of Christ crucified and risen by whom we are saved. Therefore, we become prophets of Christ’s death and Resurrection because we bear the “bread for the life of the world” (10), the flesh of Christ, within our own flesh. By our reception of the fullness of God made human, we are “all… taught by God” in the intimacy of our hearts and are thus drawn to the Father (11), as Jesus highlights by His references to the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah in today’s Gospel.

The universal call to be bearers and prophets of Christ to the world was made particularly clear to me two years ago, when I participated in a delegation to the Holy See Mission to the United Nations in New York. During the week we visited a different church in Manhattan for Mass each day. One of the daily Masses was at the home parish of the UN, the Church of the Holy Family. There, I was captivated by the beauty of the tabernacle. It was inscribed in Latin with the words from the prologue to John’s Gospel: Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis – The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (12) Indeed the Incarnate Word dwells among us and within us. We acknowledge this mystery every time we respond to the reception of the host at Communion: “Amen.”

To be a prophet of Christ is not easy. We are faced with times of despair. We are tempted to grumble and to want to give up. But St. Paul, whose letter to the Ephesians challenges us to “be imitators of God,” (13) offers us consolation also. We are “beloved children” (14) whom God has forgiven and calls to be like Him- “kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another.” (15) This is how we are to prophesy as Christians- by supporting and loving one another as one Church, as God loves us. (16)

St. Augustine offers another insight into our goal of prophetic discipleship in Christ. In two separate sermons focused on the Eucharist, he wrote: “If you receive worthily, you are what you have received” (17)… “To that which you are, you answer: ‘Amen’; and by answering, you subscribe to it. For you hear: ‘The Body of Christ!’ and you answer: ‘Amen!’ Be a member of Christ’s Body, so that your ‘Amen’ may be the truth.” (18)

When we receive the Body of Christ, that is what we become, so our “Amen” is both recognition of the Lord who comes to live among us, as well as a special greeting. Let us then, when we receive the Communion host, greet one another as fellow disciples and prophets of the Lord made flesh for our salvation. We are the Church- “the Body of Christ.” “Amen.”