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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bread of Life—To whom shall we go? (B21O)

Finishing up (for now) with the Bread of Life discourse, I thought I'd just say a few more words about real presence, and recall Joshua's words and Peter's statement, "Lord, to whom shall we go?"

I've written a lot about "real presence" before, most thoroughly here. As I was reading about yet another homilist rail against the remnant about the bogus statistic that "only 40% of Catholics believe in the real presence," I was thinking to myself, well, Father, why don't you say a little bit about human experience of how food changes when we gather around it, and about the ability of God, being God, to change things completely? Yes, it's a mystery. But it's not incomprehensible. It's just too much to completely comprehend, ever. 

One example of this came to me as I read Nathaniel Philbrick's engrossing little book called Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. In this book, Philbrick, the historian of Nantucket Island and its whaling past, gives us a popular historian's view of the settling of Massachusetts by the Pilgrims, their encounters with the indigenous peoples of the area, the first Thanksgiving, and King Philip's War, all of which happened within the span of a single generation or so. The reference to Thanksgiving made me think about human presence and the way we are capable of transforming food. I mean, turkey is just turkey. But in 1621 when a group of sorry settlers already decimated by disease and hunger were befriended by a group of Pokanoket Indians and their chief, Massasoit, the blessing of the autumn feast at the end of their first year in Plymouth made turkeys enter the world of myth. Even though turkeys, indigenous to the New World, had been brought to Europe by the conquistadors and were introduced in England eighty years before the Pilgrims sailed from Holland, it was this singular feast, marked by a hesitant attempt at a cultural exchange, that made the roast turkey a symbol of a nation's thanksgiving.

But it was people, gathered around food, that changed food into something more than just, well, charred bird. I can't even look at a turkey, or smell a turkey cooking, at any time of year, without thinking of Thanksgiving, pilgrims, my mother, my family, and my country. The food was changed by presence; yes, the presence of pilgrims and Indians around food that first Thanksgiving, but also by the remembrance of that event in millions of households for nearly four hundred years. Is the turkey just turkey? Well, yes. Certainly a farmer from Mongolia, a schoolboy from Delhi, or a Masai tribesman from South Africa might only recognize the bird. But to many, including many who have only read about American history, folklore, and mythology, the roast turkey is more than just a bird. In an important sense, to Americans, the "accidents," that is, the sensible parts of the turkey, remain the same, but the "turkey-ness" of the bird, the essence, or what Aristotle would have called its "substance", has been changed, at least in a way that we can generally agree to on some level.

As I said in my previous post, the important thing that faith brings to the table, as it were, is that in the Eucharist, it is not just human persons gathered around the table. It is human persons baptized in the Holy Spirit, who are joined in mystical union as a body with the Lord Jesus as the head of the body, who are gathered. It is God who is gathered with us. If human presence can transform food in the way I tried to outline above and in my previous post, isn't it true that, when God is involved in the gathering and in the food, the food can be seen to have changed completely? It is God who is creator, by whose word the heavens and earth were made in all their parts. "God speaks, and it is done," says Psalm 33, a sentiment strongly echoed in Isaiah 55, when the prophet writes, in God's voice, 

"For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down
And do not return there till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats,
So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it." 

God's word, God's Word, changes food completely, making it, and therefore those who eat it, a new creation. It's not our doing. Only God can do it, only God can invite to the table. "No one can come to me unless the Father beckon."
 The thing is, God invites everyone, and is waiting for us to spread the invitation. Again, that great line of Archbishop Desmond Tutu comes to mind: "We can't do it without God; God won't do it without us."
Finally, a word wrapping up some thoughts from last time. Joshua, in today's first reading, renews the covenant between God and people at Shechem. Again, the covenant with the God of life is renewed in the context of freedom. The new life that the former slave nation was to experience in Israel was a life of freedom, they were called to it by the God YHWH—"I am"—who had given them bread from heaven, manna. Jesus, in the discourse just concluded in chapter 6 of John, recalls that very God when he says to the crowd "I AM the bread of life," "I AM the living bread which came down from heaven." Jesus is the new manna, the bread of life, the bread of freedom, who reveals God as a God who wants freedom for all people. The meaning of this freedom Jesus will further demonstrate at the Last Supper, which is only represented in the fourth gospel by the washing of the feet (about which Jesus says, "as I have done, so you must do"). Further, in his appearance before Pilate, Jesus admits to being a king, but not in a kingdom like those of this world, where hordes of followers would put up a fight to prevent his trial and execution. In the kingdom of life and freedom, swords are sheathed, and life is freely given so that the freedom of others to choose is not thwarted. The bread of life, the bread of freedom, lets us enter into the very life of God, whose inner life is one of self-gift, shared power, and eternal dialogue. This, too, is a great mystery.

"Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life." You alone have the words of utter freedom, you promise and make a world of peace, as hard as it seems sometimes to listen to your word. How often I have repeated those words to friends and family members when we get into the discussion about the Church, about how hopeless our leadership can be, how sinful we ourselves are, how nothing ever seems to change, how, some people see it, the world isn't about to turn, in spite of what my song says. Lord, to whom shall we go? We are part of a people, simul justus et peccator, as the old saying goes, both God-like and sinful. We have no dependable access to Christ other than through a community. Revelation requires discernment, discernment requires other people, if you want to be at least fairly sure that the voice you are hearing is not some food that disagreed with you, or a phlegmatic chemical in your brain, or your own wishful thinking. I may want to go it alone, but Christ has made a covenant with us as a people, not as individuals, but as a body. Like Groucho, I may not want to be part of any group that would have me as a member, but here I am, not here because I chose Christ, but because Christ chose me. I have a list of reasons as long as my arm for leaving this crazy church behind, but then I remember that God has a list as long as her arm about why I shouldn't be allowed to stay, and God's arm is much longer than mine. Irascible and still allured by the pretty but empty covenants of death, I have much of which to empty myself as I try to find the road, the truth, and the freedom who is Christ. I hope I never settle for anything less than transcendence, for a sense that what I am involved in and to whomever I am immediately and utterly present has a reality and a truth that goes beyond my ability to entirely grasp it, a meaning and finality that will endure beyond the grave. That is what Christ offers. I've seen it again and again in my life. 

Tomorrow we may ask ourselves again why we do what we do, why we seem to be the dance band on the Titanic, why we work so hard to have it all cut out from under us by a pompous cleric, or a bitter, fearful reactionary, or the carelessness of those who ought to care the most about the liturgy. And again, I'll try to remember those words, thankfully a little closer to the forefront of my assaulted memory: Lord, to whom can we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.

I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

This is our music for Sunday at St. Anne:

GATHERING:   Look Beyond (Ducote)
RESP. PSALM:   O Taste and See (Haugen)
PREP RITE:   We Come to Your Feast (Joncas)
FRACTION:   Notre Dame (Isele)
COMMUNION:   One In Love (Kendzia)
SENDING FORTH:   We Will Serve the Lord (Cooney)

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