Homily: 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B
A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Of all of the amazing things that I saw and was able to experience, one of the highlights was my visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which was built over the site of Mary’s childhood home and was the place in which she received the message from the archangel Gabriel, announcing that she would become the mother of God’s Son. I remember reflecting about my experience there. “In that place,” I said to myself, “the God who created everything, and whose existence cannot be contained even in the vast universe, somehow encapsulated himself in human flesh.” For me, among all of the other experiences on that trip, standing in the place where the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” was an awe-inspiring moment.
I remember reflecting on the absurdity of it all: that God, who is limitless, would subject himself to the limits of his creation simply out of love for what he had created. Nonetheless, as we’ve been reading in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, I’m often struck that this same Son of God then took the absurdity even further by claiming that for anyone to have life within them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. On the surface, it’s a crazy statement, right? I mean, Jesus is asking his followers to be cannibals: to eat human flesh and drink human blood! Although our familiarity with it may mean that it no longer strikes us as odd, we need to grapple with the fact that this statement from Jesus is polarizing: either he is who he says he is (that is, the Son of God) and, thus, we have to give credence to what he says, or he’s not (and, therefore, he’s a madman) and we should run away immediately.
Perhaps not many of us have thought about it in these terms, but this is one of those things about which, as Christians, we cannot be neutral: rather, we need to decide on which side we are. If you need some help deciding on which side you are, I will offer this criteria: that if Jesus is crazy about one thing then he’s crazy about everything; but if he’s not crazy about everything, then he’s not crazy about anything. I think that it’s safe for me to say that we don’t think that he’s crazy about everything. Therefore, he must not be crazy about this one thing, and so we have to give it credence, no matter how crazy it sounds.
And so, when Jesus says, “I am the living bread” and “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” we have to strive to believe that he is talking about the Eucharist: for the bread that we present is not “living” bread: that is, bread that is alive, as if it were something out of some B-rated horror film. No, it is not “living” bread until it is given life when, through the words of consecration at the altar, its very substance changes and it becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus. Although it still appears to be lifeless bread, it is in reality the flesh of Jesus, who lives; thus, it becomes “bread that lives” and makes it possible for us to eat his flesh without becoming cannibals.
On the surface, of course, this is still incredible and, frankly, it cannot be accepted outright. If any otherwise rational person came to you and said, “I promise you that you will live forever if you eat my flesh and drink my blood; and, by the way, you’ll be able to do that if you eat this thing that looks like bread and drink this cup filled with what looks like wine,” you’d immediately doubt all that you knew about that person. Accepting something like this—something that pushes you beyond the bounds of understanding—comes only after a bridge of trust has been built with the person who is making this claim. Just look at our Gospel reading today: “Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” it says. And later it goes on to say “as a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” These disciples had been only loosely connected with Jesus and had not yet built a “bridge of trust” with him. Therefore, when he made this seemingly absurd claim, their fragile faith in him was shaken and fell apart. They concluded that he must be crazy and so they turned away from him.
The twelve Apostles, on the other hand, stayed with Jesus. They had experienced so much more from him and, therefore, had built a bridge of trust that supported their faith. And so, even if they didn’t understand what it was about which he was talking, they refused to write him off as a madman, but instead recommitted themselves to him: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
So where do we go from here? You know, I am convinced that those who leave the Church must not be persons who believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Otherwise, how could they walk away from it? Peter and the other Apostles believed that Jesus was the Holy One of God and so could not be swayed to abandon him, even when he taught such incredible things. In the same way, it does not seem possible that someone would acknowledge the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and yet still feel as if he or she could go somewhere where it is not.
Nonetheless, many have walked away; and the great tragedy is that many of those have walked away because of the sins committed against them by leaders in the Church: men who they called “Father”. This is an enormous tragedy: first, because it discredits the Gospel, but second because it turns people away from the Eucharist: the Eucharist, which is the event in which we literally commune with God, offering him our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, remembering the great work he has done to bring us to salvation, calling down the Holy Spirit to strengthen us for our mission on earth, and partaking in a sacred meal, which is a foretaste of the eternal banquet in heaven.
My brothers and sisters, I get it if some of you (or some people that you may know who are not here) find it hard to look at the failures of bishops and priests and not think “Can we really trust these men who have failed us so horrendously, and, therefore Christ and his Church?” I urge you, however, to remember Christ’s words: that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you do not have life within you” and, thus, to hold in tension the sacred actions of the priest, in which he stands in the person of Christ so that his Body and Blood and his healing mercy is made present to us, with the worldly actions of the man, weak and fallible as he is and subject to the attacks of the evil one: holding him accountable for his failures while supporting him in his efforts to grow in holiness. This so that not one more of us would be separated from this foretaste of the eternal banquet, which strengthens us and preserves us for eternal life.
I pray, therefore, my friends, that we would make it our task to seek out our brothers and sisters who need this grace from the Father to believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, in spite of the sometimes serious failures of the men through whom it is provided; and to help them, with our prayers and companionship, to open their hearts to this grace, so that we all might be joined together at this Holy Table, the foretaste of the eternal banquet prepared for us in heaven, to feast on the Bread of Life: Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 26, 2015