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20h Sunday in Ordinary Time (19.08.18)
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
This 20th Sunday’s Gospel (John 6:51-59) presents us with difficulties. It uses a language and employs ideas that may appear strange to us. But, to those who heard them first-hand they presented ideas reaching back to the early days of the human race.
In ancient times animals were sacrificed. They were seldom burned entire. Although the whole animal was offered to the deity only a portion was burned in sacrifice. The residual flesh was divided between officiating elders and the supplicants who, with their guests, then held a feast at the place of sacrifice.
Although only some of the flesh of the sacrifice was offered to the deity, it was believed that the deity had entered into the whole sacrifice. Therefore, the supplicants who ate the flesh believed they were eating the deity. So, those who had feasted believed that they left the gathering god-filled. That, through their sacrifice and sharing, something had happened and they had within them the dynamism of their deity.
The Jews of Jesus’ period believed they were God’s chosen. They strove and longed for a closeness with their one, true God revealed through Abraham, their and our ‘father in faith’ and Moses. They had an inherited memory of their predecessors’ varied experience of union with God often focusing on what was consumed. This was their background when they heard the teaching of Jesus, either directly or, later, recounted by John. John, in his Gospel, is not giving the actual words that Jesus spoke. John had been thinking, praying and preaching for seventy years about what he had heard Jesus say. So, what John has left us in his Gospel is the essential meaning of Jesus’ words and he has done this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Among human beings we believe that Jesus is unique in being, in the One Person, both God and Man. We believe that Jesus spoke only The Truth. What Jesus said or enacted was not a version, or a rendering, or a reflection or an understanding of The Truth. It was the whole and entire Truth and, as such, was way beyond peoples’ comprehension. We may like to think that we speak, write and enact the truth. In reality, the best reflection of The Truth that we, as the created of God, can speak, write or enact is our finite, sin-damaged and limited understanding. For God alone is The Truth – see John 14:6 – “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life …..”
So, it follows that when we read Jesus’ teaching in the Scriptures we wonder at its in-depth meaning. We are no more capable of making an immediate, penetrating appreciation of The Truth any more than were those who heard Jesus first hand.
When Jesus embraced a human nature like ours with his Divinity it was ‘a first’. The whole, complete, in depth entirety of The Truth had previously not been spoken by a human. Those whom Jesus chose and commissioned spoke this Truth through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven …. and they were bewildered, because each one heard them (the Apostles) speaking in his own language.”
The Apostles were enabled to communicate The Truth whilst still in a lifelong process of assimilating it themselves. Take, for example, Peter’s declaration in Acts 10:34: “The truth, I have now come to realise, is that God does not show favouritism ..”
Pope St. Gregory, reflecting on the Book of Job, comments that one effect of embracing The Truth is growth in humility, which (he says) ‘is itself is the mother and teacher of all virtues’. By putting The Truth into practice, more than through preaching about it, we grow in humility.
In his first letter Paul says to Timothy: “Command these things and teach them with all authority” (4:11) The authority, referred to by Paul, is not derived from status but from an active engagement with The Truth in an evident way of life. For Paul, “Teaching with authority’ means living something before preaching it – ‘actions speak louder than words’. If our speech is impeded by our conscience, our hearers will find it hard to trust what we say. As Jesus taught in Matt. 23:1-3:
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
By contrast, Mark (1: 21) recalls how the people who heard Jesus speak: “were astonished at his teaching, because Jesus taught as one who had authority, not like their own scribes.” Jesus spoke with a unique authority because he was unimpeded by personal sin and spoke with an innocence found in only one other human namely, Mary, his Mother. (Reflections on Job by Pope St. Gregory)
Dawn proclaims that the night is over. But it does not immediately manifest the full brightness of the day. It gives a ‘beginning’ to the day that is still a mixture of light and darkness. All of us who look for The Truth in this life are like the dawn. Some of our actions are truly works of light but others are not free of the remnants of darkness. Paul does not say: ‘the night has gone and the day has come’. He says: “.. the night has passed and the day is approaching ..” He is declaring that he is still ‘in the dawn’. Total darkness has ended but it is still before the rising of the sun.
The Church will be fully in daylight only when the darkness of sin is no longer mixed with it. It will be truly day when it shines with the perfect warmth of a light that comes from within. Peter, James and John were privileged to witness the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top. But such was the brightness of the light that shone out from the Body of Jesus Christ that, not only did they fail to find words to describe it, they could not continue to look at it and buried their heads. Matthew (17:6-7):
“When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.”
Jesus tells us, in this Sunday’s Gospel, that:
“Whoever east my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
In Jewish thought blood stands for life. In both Genesis (9:4) and Deuteronomy (15:23) the Jews were prohibited from eating meat with the blood still in it. Yet, here is Jesus introducing a major change. In telling his followers to drink his blood, he is teaching us to take his life into the very core of our hearts.
Just think how many people, worldwide, are only alive today because they received a blood transfusion. By receiving blood or blood products from another into their circulation intravenously, they were enabled to replace vital lost components of their own blood. After receiving a transfusion people do not think of the transfused blood as a foreign body within them. The transfused blood becomes one with them.
In telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus is inviting us to nourish our hearts, souls and minds on his whole being, God and Man in one Person. He is calling us to a continuous communion with him, despite our unworthiness, that is a permanent state of being whether or not we have access to Mass and the Eucharist.
Jesus knew that his hearers then, as we today, would struggle to grow in understanding of his words when he spoke about how we were “to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood”. And yet, despite the struggle involved, some back then heard, as some today hear, in Jesus’ words a sufficiency of The Truth to enable a continuing pilgrimage of faith discovery.
Pope Benedict expressed it this way in June 2011:
“The Eucharist is like a beating heart giving life to the mystical Body of the Church – a social organisation entirely founded on its spiritual yet tangible bond with Christ.
Without the Eucharist the Church would simply cease to exist.
It is the Eucharist that makes a human community a mystery of communion, capable of bringing God to the world and the world to God.”