18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 5, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Last week, today and for the next 3 weeks
the whole Church is reading and meditating
on the 6th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel
–St. John’s beautiful explanation of the Eucharist.
Last week we read about the multiplication of loaves.
This week we begin what’s called “the bread of life discourse,”
which begins with Christ’s promise of a sign.
There are many kinds of signs in the world.
Some signs tell us facts:
like the sign in front of the church that tells us the Mass schedule.
Still other signs symbolize something and bring it into the memory,
like a picture of a loved one.
And then there are the signs we call “sacraments”
signs that Christ himself has given us
which don’t merely communicate facts or memories,
but actually bring about and embody Christ’s
love and presence and power—His grace–in our lives.
Today’s Gospel picks up where we left off last week:
just after Jesus had fed the 5000 with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.
Jesus had shown the people a great sign of His power:
–a sign communicating the fact of Jesus’ power
–and a sign that called to memory
the manna God sent from heaven for the Israelites in the desert
1300 years before, as we read in today’s first reading.
With all this, even though this miracle satisfied their physical hunger,
it had only served to arouse their much deeper spiritual hunger
to know that God was still with them
just as He had been with their ancestors in the desert.
And so they asked Jesus for something more
–a dramatic and definitive sign to convince them
that God had sent Jesus to assure them of His love and presence:
“What sign can you do,”
they say, “that we may see and believe in you?
…Our ancestors ate manna in the desert.”
But Jesus knows that no mere symbol would satisfy this hunger.
The only sign that could do that would be what we call the “incarnation”:
when God the Son Himself would become a man–
the true embodiment and the actual physical presence
of God in the world,
for all to know, to hear, to see and to touch.
Unfortunately, this was a sign that was not easily comprehensible
to simple human reason.
And so the crowd asks for a sign that will force them to have faith in Him,
something that will either conquer or convince their reason
and compel them to accept him.
But Jesus knows that they have it backwards:
they must have faith first before their reasonable minds
will recognize this sign.
As He says: “This is the work of God: have faith in the One he sent.”
I mentioned before that pictures are a kind of sign.
Once when I was a little boy, I saw a picture of my Dad as a young man,
with his arm around a young woman
whose face was not visible in the picture.
Now, someone who didn’t know my dad might wonder
who that was that he had his arm around?
was it some old girlfriend?
was he cheating on my Mom?
But when I saw the picture, having faith in my Dad,
I knew without a second thought that the woman was my Mom.
That’s the effect faith has on the mind’s understanding of signs:
we see them in a whole different light—not illogically, but enlightened.
What was not even noticed before, suddenly becomes obvious.
This is what Jesus is talking about.
And it’s what St. Paul was talking about when He told the Ephesians,
as we read in today’s 2nd reading
“that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,
in the futility of their minds;
that is not how you learned Christ,…
you should … be renewed in the spirit of your minds.”
So in the light of faith,
when Christ says that “God has set his seal” on Him,
or when He says, “he who has seen me has seen the Father,”
we believe him.
And not because He has proven it beyond all rational doubt,
because our reason understands the signs in the light of our faith in Him.
But Jesus knows that He will not remain in the world:
that the sign of His presence, God’s presence,
that is his physical incarnate body
would eventually ascend bodily to His Father in heaven.
So He promises to leave behind another sign
—another sign that is also not just a mere symbol,
but a sign which also personifies God
and makes Him substantially present in the world.
And so He says in today’s gospel:
“I am the bread of life…”
And next week, as we continue reading this text, He tells us:
“The bread I will give is my flesh…the bread I will give is real food.”
Jesus promises to give us bread that will remain with us as the continuing sign
of His real presence in the world.
But how does bread signify Jesus, God’s presence in the world?
Symbolically, the bread reminds us of several things.
First, bread was a sign of food in general—it is the most basic food of every culture.
it reminded the Jews of the prophesies of the great and abundant feast
that the Messiah would bring.
And it reminds Christians of the wedding banquet of heaven,
what the prayers of the Mass call “the supper of the Lamb,”
recorded in St. John’s book of Revelation.
Bread was also a part of the ritual sacrifices offered in the Old Testament:
the Passover sacrifice itself was to include an offering of bread.
Bread was also offered every Sabbath, the “showbread,”
which was placed in front of the Holy of Holies, as sacrifice to the Lord
that remained continuously in His presence.
So that bread always reminded the Jews of the sacrifice that they continually offered God as a constant renewal of their Covenant with Him.
For Christians it reminds us, then, of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross,
the new Passover, and of the new Covenant he initiated there,
renewed continuously, at every Mass,
especially on the new Sabbath, Sunday.
But the most important sign value behind the bread is in the way
it communicates God’s real presence to us.
The manna God gave the Jews during their long exodus to the promised land
was more to them than simply physical food:
every morning when they woke and found the manna on the ground
it was the continuous daily sign
that God was truly present with them,
loving and caring for them everyday.
In the same way, the Eucharistic bread reminds us
that God is present with us everyday
–especially in the Eucharist–
providing everything we need to complete our journey to heaven.
These and other symbolic elements of the Eucharist grow out of Jewish symbols.
But there are some symbolic elements
that are unique to Christians and the Eucharist.
In particular, by choosing this rich symbol of bread,
Jesus communicates that He truly wants to be with us
—no longer simply nebulously present in a fiery cloud “out there”
sending us food “down here”.
No, Christ has come among us, in the flesh, and wants to remain with us,
in the flesh.
And so just as He entered into humanity by taking on our flesh,
in the Eucharistic bread Hhe actually enters into us
—into our mouths, into our flesh, into our bodies,
into our selves.
By eating the Eucharistic bread—which is no bread at all, but Jesus himself—
God enters into us and unites
His body to our body,
His spirit to our spirit,
His person to our person,
United by a symbol, but not merely symbolically
—but sacramentally and really.
When Jesus said “I am the bread of life”
did the apostles understand exactly what He was talking about?
But because they had faith in Jesus,
they had faith that somehow what He said would come to pass.
So at the end of the Bread of life discourse in John Chapter 6,
St. Peter professes his faith in what Jesus has said:
“You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and are convinced
that you are the Holy One of God.”
And a few months later, on the night He was betrayed,
in the midst of a long speech
in which Jesus said many confusing things like:
“I am in the Father and the Father in me,”
“I pray…that they may be one even as we are one,
I in them and thou in me.”
they saw Him take bread, bless, break and give it to them,
and remembered how He had done this same thing
right before He fed the five thousand.
And as He handed them the bread saying, “this is my body,”
they also remembered the words
He had spoken after feeding the five thousand:
“I am the bread of life.”
And they believed in Him,
and so they believed that this sign was all He said it was.
Today, WE participate in this mysterious and wonderful sign.
As the priest holds the bread in his hands,
and says those very same words of Our Lord:
“this is my body,”
Jesus becomes actively and really and bodily present on the altar
— under sacramental sign of bread and wine.
Nothing we can do can change this fact,
but if we refuse to believe that this sign is what Jesus says It is,
then we will continue to hunger and thirst for other signs
to satisfy our desire to know that we are in God’s presence and love,
and we will never be satisfied.
If, however, we come to our Eucharistic Lord believing in Him
and the sacramental sign He gives us,
He will keep His promise to us:
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to Me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in Me will never thirst.”