Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ / Corpus Christi, 6-18-17
The Continuing Miracle of the New Manna
We started our readings today in Deuteronomy, when God fed the people with the miracle of manna as they escaped from slavery in Egypt. God had told Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven” for you. According to Exodus 16, manna was a daily reminder of the promise of God’s goodness. Manna had never been seen before, never appeared on the Sabbath, was present for 40 years, and then stopped forever when the Israelites were able to eat produce in the Promised Land (Joshua 5:12).
Ps 78:24 reads, “Man ate the bread of the angels; God sent them food in abundance.” Wisdom 16:20 reads, “You nourished your people with food of angels and furnished them bread from heaven.” This manna was recognized as holy, and a jar of manna was kept in the Temple’s most holy place with Ark of the Covenant.
It won’t surprise you that there were many Jewish Traditions about manna. One was that manna was kept in the Heavenly Temple where God dwells. They believed that manna was an eternal reality, existing long before it “rained down” on the Israelites. Another Tradition said when the Messiah came, he would be a “new Moses” and manna would return to earth; the miracle of manna would again occur between the coming of the Messiah and the final resurrection of the dead/ the final judgment. That, in fact, is the period of time we live in, and Jesus gave us the new manna.
Why am I telling you Jewish Traditions that are found in rabbinic writings from the first and second century? Well, here’s an idea for you: the whole context of Jesus’ bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John is centered on the Jewish hopes for the coming of a New Moses and the return of the manna from heaven.
Chapter 6 of John starts with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus, like Moses, provides all the bread (and more) the hungry crowd could eat. The people “get” the symbolism and prepare to “take (Jesus) by force and make him king”, which fits their political interpretation of the role of Messiah. They call out, “This is indeed the prophet (Moses) who is (prophesized) to come into the world!” They pursue Jesus and demand a sign, saying that “Moses gave (the people) bread from heaven…give us this bread always”.
So Jesus responds, “I AM the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they (later) died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever and the bread that I give… is my flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn 6:51)
Many of his followers were horrified! Jews in Jesus’ time had good reason to doubt. Jews were directly forbidden to drink blood in the Law (Lev 17:11), because it contained the very essence of life, and to never eat the flesh of another human. What Jesus said truly offended them, and they left him and returned to their former way of life. They thought they understood, but they did not believe him. Peter emphatically says he & the apostles believe, but not so much that they understand. No one understood until Easter.
This is the point in the Gospel at which our lectionary stops, as do most homilies. However, it is also the point at which Jesus begins an explanation. Obviously, Jesus is talking about the Last Supper – the elements of the Mass, and we have to return to the discussion of “manna”. Once again, John uses “bookends.” Jesus starts this part of the discourse with “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness” (6:48) and ends it with “This is the bread that comes down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors, who ate and still died; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (6:58) Manna is the teaching vehicle. This is how it works: OT/ NT, prefiguration/ fulfillment, foreshadowing/clarity. Just as Moses was a great father of the faith/ Jesus was the Son of God. If the old manna was “food of the angels”, then the new manna couldn’t be just bread…and wine, but the food of eternity for all people.
John’s Gospel provides us 2 keys to understanding. 1st key: Jesus says, “What if… you were to see (me) ascending to where (I) was before?” Would it change your mind? Remember that Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2); that he was the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12); and referred to himself as God by saying “I AM” (John 8) –when Moses asked God his name, God said, “I AM” (Exodus 3). He had come from heaven and was divine. God. The discussion has changed from human to divine.
2nd Key- equally important-Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh (a Greek expression meaning earthly things, not meat) is of no avail.” (John 6: 63) What you see & touch on earth can’t create life. Instead, he was talking about his risen body and blood; his resurrected body is Spirit, the Spirit of Life. His body then was no longer bound by earthly time, form, or space, as we know from the post-resurrection appearances. We are no longer talking about daily earthly events. We moved to the rhelm of eternity.
The Spirit came with the appearance of the familiar, yet fully divine. Jesus links his resurrection to our resurrection when he says, “(They) who eat my flesh and drink my blood (meaning the fullness and very essence of the eternal God who created life) have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54). Jesus said, “God is Spirit” in John 4:24, and now says, “It is the Spirit that gives life”. Bread feeds our cells and allows us to live on earth; the manna of the Mass feeds us for eternal life.
I was thinking as I wrote this that if I showed my cell phone to the disciples, they wouldn’t have understood it. We have difficulty understanding the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Thinking of eternity in the mystical sense is more than tough for us. Yet, I can’t describe what I feel when I kiss the altar nor can I count the number of people who have believed in the Eucharist thru the years. Even Melchizedek, in the time of Abraham, already seemed to have this “bread & wine” ritual. I know this: it must be from God. As you receive today, focus on that fullness of life, the resurrected Christ in these elements, and know that he is able to bring you, pure and made whole, into the presence of God. It is God’s gift to you, so come in faith and give thanks.
The readings today on the 4th Sunday of Easter seem misplace as the reading from Acts is from Pentecost Sunday and the Gospel is from the time of Christ’s ministry. However, if we step back and look at the readings from the perspective of the resurrection we can get a look at the all encompassing love of God for the world through his Son Jesus. As members of his church or flock, we have an intimate connection with him and with each other and ultimately all believers and people we care about. God’s love embraces all and includes forgiveness if we open our hearts and forgive as Jesus does. Love can conquer and cover over many things and bring unbelievers and sinners closer and in some way within the circle of God’s love. Is it not so that God love every one and actually turns no one away. The interruption of a relationship with God is not the doing of God,but the rejection or walking away of someone. God is like a father who sadly accepts rejection but is always loving and ready to forgive. What more powerful proof of this could there be than the very life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son. If this life-giving, loving act can not be accepted, then what is left? All of history seemingly revolves around that very act. Humanity has been slow to believe and share and spread the word, but God still is looking out for the world in ways we don’t understand. What we need to do is to reach out and embrace others with love, as in doing so we are sharing God’s love and even spreading his forgiveness and hopefully spreading his word. It is what the Lord commanded, to love each other as he loved us.
Promises and Blessings, Now and Then
Last Sunday we read the Emmaus story, in which Jesus walks with two disciples. They do not recognize him, but “he interpreted to them (the parts which) referred to him in all the scriptures.” Later they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” Today our situation is the similar. I cannot tell you how many years I heard Peter’s Pentecost homily with my eyes glazing over as I wondered where those scripture quotations came from, what they meant, and how they were relevant. Without interpretation, our readings do not come to us full of meaning and context.
This interpretation is complicated by our readings jumping around in the scriptures during the Easter Season. If we read the text of the New Testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” straight thru, we would have already read of the Ascension. We would have read also about the after-Easter period of prayer for apostles, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, and the other women who had been part of Jesus’ ministry. Then The Spirit came at Pentecost, the very day that Peter proclaims his homily. We read part of his homily last week and part today.
When he begins, Peter quotes the Old Testament book of Joel. The prophet Joel uses a terrifying invasion of locusts as a visual starting place for his teaching. He compares the arrival of the locusts to the last days of the world, also called “the coming of the Lord”. Basically, he’s saying that the locusts will destroy all the crops and the nation will starve to death if God doesn’t save them. This could be the “end of their days”- a euphemism for death. So, says Joel, why don’t you humble yourselves before God, cast aside your senseless reliance on yourself, shed your false pride, and admit your frailty and powerlessness, for your only hope is to call out for God’s grace and mercy. And the people do just that.
God responds to them, promising to remove the locusts, restore the crops and give them all the food they can eat. In addition, (God is always lavish in blessing us) God promises to pour out his Spirit on the people, even down to the lowliest servants, and rescue (save) “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” in the last days. God says, “For on Mount Zion, (the temple hill in Jerusalem)…in Jerusalem there will be survivors- whom the Lord shall call.” This pouring out of God’s Spirit and call from God (remember Pentecost was also an auditory experience), foretold in Joel, is happening as Peter speaks from the temple hill in Jerusalem!
Peter tells the Joel story to create these parallels between Joel’s day and Pentecost. Peter began by saying, “let the whole house of Israel know for certain” (“the whole house of Israel” refers to those who are saved in the Last Days) “that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified. The people of Joel’s day were saved by humbling themselves and calling on the Lord’s mercy. Now something new has happened. Now Jesus is “Lord”, God. In other words, the people hearing Peter must humble themselves and call on the mercy of Jesus to forgive them for their sins, including the crucifixion. How do the people call on the Lord Jesus’ mercy? They must be baptized in Jesus’ name and receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
But Peter isn’t done yet. He says, “For the Promise is made to you …and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” Who are the ones “far off”? That’s us, the Gentiles. What is “the Promise”? Think; who was the “father of faith” that God made all those promises to? You know, “as countless as the stars in the sky”. Abraham was promised in Genesis 22:18, “In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” How do they find blessing? The blessing, according to both Luke (Acts) and Paul (in Galatians 3: 2-9), is in baptism & the gift of the Spirit.
Peter still has more to say. The passage in the 1st Letter of St. Peter, that is our 2nd reading, is a pretty clear interpretation of the “Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52 thru 53. That is obvious because Peter quotes verse 53:12 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” What is Peter’s goal here? The Jews taught that this was about the prophet Isaiah, as a witness to all the nations. Peter interprets it as about Jesus, who came to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah was the warm-up band, not the main attraction. Jesus is the sinless servant, who willingly suffered for the sins of the people, who saves them – us- from just punishment for sin. This is the source of Christian teaching that the sufferings of Jesus healed us, he gave his life for us and accomplished God’s will. Jesus bore our guilt and won pardon for our offenses. Peter says, (We) “had gone astray like sheep, but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of (our) souls.”
Finally, our Gospel is primarily an interpretation of Ezekiel 34, (well worth reading, hint, hint) although there are certainly many other scriptural references to shepherds. That is too much to cover today, but I want to make just one point about shepherds. Usually, the Jewish priesthood and religious leaders are targeted as the “Bad” shepherds. But in that same 1st Peter 2:9 we find, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own, so that you may announce the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Not just priests and leaders, but each and every one of us has a responsibility to examine our words and behaviors in the light of God’s truth. Part of doing that is to take very seriously our scriptures along with our Catholic Tradition, with a capital T, so we have a fuller grasp of the gifts and grace God has lavished on us, who were once “far off”, now drawing ever nearer to the Lord of all.