Tag Archives: Gospel of John

How Can These Things Be?

The full readings for this Sunday can be found here.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

          Back in 1975, my parents packed me up and loaded me onto an airplane bound for Lacombe, Louisiana. There, I would attend a minor seminary, which was a kind of a prep school for young men who wanted to become priests.  In addition to the regular courses, we would study Latin and theology. And we went to Mass every day.

          While I was there, I became close with three young men: Steve Delacroix, who taught me the benefits of being a rogue; Gerard Lascaux, who taught me how to play poker; and Jariet Randall, a young African-American man who taught me a great deal about courage.

          Well, every now and then, the four of us would sneak off from the seminary into the Louisiana night and go through the woods into the town of Lacombe. There was an old swimming pool there where the girls from town would go, and we would meet them for what my friend Gerard Lascaux called “general mischief.”

          So this one night, we snuck out of the dorm and went walking towards town, and it was way past dark-thirty. And I observed that if the priests caught us sneaking out, we would be in real trouble. And my friend Steve Delacroix said, “Oh no, chère.  They won’t be upset, cause we’re doing this for their benefit.” Well, I looked at him and said, “Delacroix, how do you figure we are doing this for their benefit?”

          Well, Steve, he looked at me and said, “You see, we’re living such holy lives here at the seminary that if we didn’t sneak out every now and then, we wouldn’t have no sins to confess, and the priests wouldn’t have nothing to forgive.”

          Well, it turns out that my friend Delacroix had misjudged the priests’ attitude about our late night adventures, and they weren’t nearly as grateful as we thought they might be.

          So, in today’s Gospel, we hear about another fellow who has been sneaking around at night, albeit for reasons somewhat more noble than were mine and my friends’.

          We meet this man Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, who Jesus calls “the teacher of Israel.” He comes to Jesus as one of the stewards of the religious traditions of his people. Now the Evangelist John is a very fine poet, and when he says Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, we need to recognize that John’s not just talking about events that took place after sunset. John means that Nicodemus was walking in a spiritual darkness. And he comes to Jesus at night, in secret.

          Now Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and he had inherited a rich, long tradition and had devoted his life to it. And yet, he was drawn to this man Jesus, drawn to the signs he has seen, drawn to the miracles, and drawn to the clear presence of God in Jesus’ life.

          And then, their conversation takes a very strange turn. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above if he wants to see the kingdom. Now this is a moment that transcends Nicodemus’ initial curiosity. This is not just a minor adjustment in Nicodemus’ ideas about God. This is a completely new way of being, which will require Nicodemus to let go of most everything he thinks he understands.

          And understandably, Nicodemus is confused. He doesn’t get it; he takes Jesus literally. He wonders how an old man is supposed to be born again, to go back to the womb. And Jesus’ response doesn’t necessarily clear that confusion up. He tells Nicodemus that what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. In essence, Jesus tells him, you’ve got to be born all over again; you’ve got to start from the very beginning.

          Jesus tells him that Spirit goes where it will; we don’t know where it comes from and we don’t know where it’s going. A life in the spirit of God, a life like that of Jesus, isn’t neat or calculable or predictable. The Spirit is holy and wild and unrestrained. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God will not remain in the box that we try to keep God in.

          And Nicodemus doesn’t understand. He is confused. He reveals his amazement when he says, “How can these things be?” There is a certain terror in his confusion. Because like every birth, being born in the spirit will involve a certain amount of pain as well as some chaos. But there is a certain grace in that bewilderment.

          God will not stay inside the box of our comprehension. As a friend noted, “God, as I understand Him, is not well understood.” Or, to paraphrase the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, Not only is God stranger than we think, God is stranger than we have the capacity to think.

          We all like our mountaintop experiences. We love those moments when we think we can grasp God, or the movement of God in our lives. But those aren’t the moments where growth happens. Spiritual growth arises more often from moments when we say, “I don’t understand this at all” or “What is this happening here?” or “How can these things be?” If we want to follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, we need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

          We might call these moments of “holy confusion.” In times like these, God draws us closer. God calls us to change. God calls us into something completely new. In such moments, we feel like the rest of our lives don’t make sense anymore. We feel like new people; we feel reborn.

          One of my favorite theologians is a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel, who prayed that God would give him the gift of wonder. He once said “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” As Heschel knew, we are far closer to God when we are asking questions than when we are convinced of our answers.

          But we know a few more things about Nicodemus. We know that at the trial of Jesus, he was the only person who stood up for Christ. Nicodemus, who had initially come to Jesus in secret, spoke up for him in public. And we know that when Jesus was crucified, it was Nicodemus (along with Joseph of Aramethea) who took the body to be buried and anointed it. Somehow, the encounter with this man Jesus changed Nicodemus.

          And we want to know more, we want to know what happened to him. But I think that John’s Gospel intentionally leaves that story unfinished. Our story, too, is unfinished. But God wants to make something new of us; God draws us into a holy vortex where God is making all things new again.

          For Nicodemus, like many of us, faith had become a beautiful heirloom rather than a living fountain from which we drink and are refreshed. You see, I don’t think we need a little more God in our lives. I think we need to be born from above, into the life of God. Every now and then, if we’re really lucky, God will shake us to our core.

          And in this holy season of Lent, it’s my prayer that we all walk through a bit of that night, a bit of holy confusion. As we approach the nightfall of Holy Week, it is my prayer that we find ourselves wondering at the meaning of the Cross and Golgotha, awestruck by the mystery of God.

          If we do, we may find that we, too, have been reborn and we are a new creation. Let it be, Lord. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

 

The Bread of Life

Bread of Life

The readings for today can be found here:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

You know, we people, we the people of God, have a funny relationship with food. We have a biblical relationship with food. And it goes back a long, long way. When we were expelled from the garden of Eden, it was because we wanted to eat the food that God had not blessed for our use. Reaching far back into the Bible, both human and divine covenants were sealed with a ritual meal. The principle Old Testament story of deliverance, the Exodus, is celebrated in the ritual meal of the Passover.

Some of us really like to eat, some of us can’t stand to eat, and some of us are eating ourselves to death.  And when we don’t eat, even at the cellular level, our body sends us a message: “We are dying here.” Remember back in the book of Genesis, when Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright? Essau comes in from working in the field, and smells the red stew his brother has prepared.  He is famished and says, “I am dying.”

I have a confession to make to you. And it’s something of which I’m not very proud. I have never been hungry in my life. Oh sure, there’ve been moments when I wanted to eat. But there was always food there. Even when I’ve fasted for a day or so, there’s always been food there. I may have abstained from eating for a while, but I’ve never been more than a few steps away from a meal.

It was not so in Jesus’ time for most people. Most people not only knew real hunger; it was their constant companion. That’s what it means to live in a subsistence economy—never being more than a meal or two away from serious trouble. And that’s why the feeding of the 5,000 and the story of Jesus healing and teaching there had such a powerful appeal to the earliest Christians. And thus, all four gospel writers included that story in their attempts to explain who Jesus was. For people who lived their lives plagued by hunger, that’s a big deal. That’s…well, that’s dinner and a show. And today’s gospel takes place right after the feeding of the multitudes.

I have another confession to make to you. I think John’s gospel may well be my favorite among the four gospels. It’s the most poetic, it’s the most philosophical, and it’s the richest, with one layer of meaning piled onto another. And in John’s gospel, the conversation is never really about what the conversation is about.

So, when John tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus and this woman have a conversation about water, but it’s not. And today, although the conversation is about bread, that’s not really what Jesus is talking about. In today’s Gospel, as in last week’s, we find the people looking for Jesus. And I think many of us today are still looking for him. We look for him to come down and stop all this nonsense. We look for him to stop the church burnings, stop us from treating this fragile planet like a toilet, stop the demonizing of the poor. Lord, when are you going to stop us from shooting the lions? When are you going to stop us from shooting the people? And we wonder, “Lord, where are you?” And just like us, the people in this gospel have a lot of questions.

A good deal of today’s reading is about questions and answers. And often, the question Jesus answers is not the question they asked. I don’t think that arises because Jesus didn’t understand them. I think they, like us, were often asking the wrong questions. Jesus has fed the five thousand, and the people are still struggling to figure out what all this means. But as they ask questions, and Jesus answers, we get the feeling they aren’t really talking about the same thing.

For example, the people ask Jesus when he crossed the sea, when he got there. Jesus answers them, kind of. He says, you’re not looking for me because you saw signs of the Kingdom of God, but because you ate your fill of food. They’re following Jesus, but he invites them to examine why they’re doing that. He invites them to examine their motives. It calls to mind something the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral about the perpetual shortcoming of us religious people: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Jesus tells them, “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that will endure forever.” I think we all spend a lot of our time working for the food that perishes. We work to pay for houses that will crumble, cars that will rust, clothes that will be packed away or thrown out. Like that crowd, we want security. Maybe that’s what we expect from our religion, too. But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus is offering us. How much of our work do we devote to eternity, to the life of the Spirit which we received at baptism?

And so the people want to know, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Again, Jesus’ answer suggests a conversational near-miss. He tells them, God’s work consists in believing in the one God sent. In other words, it’s not so much about what you have to do, it’s more about who you trust, who you’re willing to become.

And so, the people ask for a sign: if we’re going to believe in you, you need to show us a sign that you’re the one God sent. Now, it’s worth putting this request in context. By this point, Jesus has already changed the water into wine in Cana, healed a boy in Capernaum, healed a lame man at the pool near the Sheep Gate, fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and walked across the sea in a storm. We might wonder, “Exactly what kind of a sign are you looking for?” In John’s gospel, the signs largely go unseen. But that’s part of the richness of this gospel: people watch what Jesus is doing, but they don’t have any idea what it means. They look, but they don’t understand—they don’t really see.

And then the people suggest, you know, we’re looking for a real sign, something like Moses did. And Jesus reminds them about the manna in the desert: Moses didn’t do that at all. That came from God. Jesus tells them, “It is my father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” Everything we are, everything we have: it all comes from God. And until we get that, we’re never really going to understand Jesus.

Because then, just like now, the bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And Jesus isn’t really talking about bread here at all. I don’t think we can understand this passage without reading it along with the 4th chapter of John.  You remember, the Samaritan woman who has a talk with Jesus about the water in the well.

And Jesus tells her, if you drink that, you’ll just be thirsty again later.  But he offers her something else, something  called “living water,” and says  “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

And remember what she says? She says “Sir, give me this water.” So, when Jesus tells the people in today’s gospel that the bread of God gives life to the world what do the people respond? “Sir, give us this bread always.” But, something tells me they still don’t get it. Something tells me they still want that bread they had up on the mountaintop. They might want the bread, and think he can give them the bread, but they’re not ready to accept that he is the bread.

Jesus tells them, “I am the bread of life.” And when he says that, it resonates with the echo of the God who told Moses, I am who I am. Just like that crowd that day, we might question why we’re seeking Jesus. What are we looking for? In what ways are we just using Jesus, rather than getting to know him and learning to love him. The Jesus of today’s gospel is a gift from God that offers us new life.

Too often, we live for security: the comfort of a full belly and a wallet flush with cash. But there’s another way to live, in which we turn toward a real home, a place to abide. The living God is the only response to our souls, which are not just a little peckish, not just hollow, not just hungry, but are starving for new way to live. There is a way to live that looks beyond wealth and power and taking care of ourselves. It’s amazing how many people have climbed to the top of that heap and found it to be profoundly empty. If we let him, God will take this emptiness and fill our lives. There is a way to live that values two things above all else: loving God and loving his children. That way lies life, and life in abundance.

There is a way to live that sets asides our own concerns and looks to the needs of others and the needs of the world. That was the way of Jesus, the way he taught. And if we share in that life, we have a real communion with our Lord. Then, we will find a real, holy communion.

So, when we’re called up to this altar in just a few moments, take and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

St. Gregory the Theologian: A Homily

Gregory the Theologian
They said to him, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all?I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father.So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’As he was saying these things, many believed in him.

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ John 8:25-32.

In the name of the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Good morning. It’s good to be with you as we celebrate the feast of St. Gregory of Nanzianzus. He was born in modern-day Turkey around the time the Nicene Creed was written , and died in 389. At a time when the church was still struggling with the nature of Christ and the Trinity, he was an eloquent preacher and a deep thinker , earning him the nickname “The Theologian.”  While the church still strove to understand the idea that Jesus could be fully human and fully divine, Gregory wrote this:

As man he was baptized, but he absolved sins as God; he needed no purifying rites himself—his purpose was to hallow water. . . . He hungered—yet he fed thousands. He is indeed “living, heavenly bread.” He thirsted—yet he exclaimed: “Whosoever thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” Indeed he promised that believers would become fountains. He was tired—yet he is the “rest” of the weary and the burdened. . . . He weeps, yet he puts an end to weeping. He asks where Lazarus is laid—he was man; yet he raises Lazarus—he was God. . . . .He is weakened, wounded—yet he cures every disease and every weakness. He is brought up to the tree and nailed to it—yet by the tree of life he restores us. He surrenders his life, yet he has power to take it again. . . . Yes, the veil is rent, for things of heaven are being revealed, rocks split, and dead men have an earlier awakening. He dies, but he brings life into death and by his death destroys death. He is buried, yet he rises again. He goes down to Hades, yet he leads souls up, ascends to heaven, and will come to judge quick and dead.

So, Gregory spent a good deal of time struggling with those who would attempt to distinguish between Jesus and the Father, and those who would attempt to separate Jesus from his humanity. And so we come to today’s Gospel passage. We hear Jesus trying to answer the question, “Who are you?” It may be the most important question we can answer for ourselves.  Jesus answers, “‘the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him. They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he.'” Somehow, in the cross, Jesus reveals his divinity: in his mortality, he shows us that death has no more hold on him, or us. The Christ assures us that there isn’t any separation between the Son and the Father, telling us that “the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone.” In that same 8th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “If you knew me, you would know my Father.”

Again, like our friend Gregory, Jesus teaches us that there’s no distinction between the life of the Father and the life revealed to us in the life of Christ. The divine unity of the Trinity cannot be carved up. That’s why in just a few moments we’ll all profess that we believe in One God.

Now for most of us, we really don’t confront very often those who would separate Jesus from the Father or the Spirit. But there are plenty of places, people and things we encounter that would separate Christ—from us. Our work, our hobbies, our distractions, even our families, can get between us and a life in Christ if we’re not careful. They conspire to keep us from the life we were meant for, a life shared with the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

But when we come to know Jesus, when we fall in love with the One God, we’ll find the truth. And we’ll find the freedom to be the people of God, the people we were meant to be. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Feast of Mary Magdalene: A Sermon

Mary MagdaleneMary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  John 20:11-18.

It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning as we celebrate the Feast of a great saint of the Church, Mary Magdalene. Magdalene: the first witness to the resurrection, Mary, who had her heart broken and then restored.  So, I thought I’d borrow very liberally this morning from a sermon first preached by Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, around the thirteenth century.

“Mary stood at the sepulchre weeping ….”

A wonder that in such sore distress she was even able to weep. She stood there because she loved, she wept because she mourned. She approached and looked into the sepulchre. She was looking for a dead man: she found two living angels and the living son of God.

Origen says: “She stood – why did she stand when the Apostles had run away?’ Because she had nothing to lose. Everything she had was lost with Him. When He died, she died as well. When they buried Him, they buried her with Him. So she had nothing to lose.

She moved on. Then he met her. She thought it was the gardener, and said “Where have you put Him?’ Anxious for Him, she does not answer His question; just, ‘Where have you put Him?’ Those were her words. Then He showed her plainly Who He was. Had he announced Himself straight away while she was in the throes of longing, she would have died of joy.

If the soul knew when God would come to her, she would die of joy! – and if she knew when He would leave her, she would die of grief. She knows neither when He comes nor when He goes: she knows well when He is with her. It is said, “His comings and goings are hidden; His presence is no secret, for He is Light, and by its very nature Light is Manifestation.”

Mary sought God and only God. That is why she found Him, because she desired God and nothing else.

While we didn’t get to hear this part of the story, unlike the other gospels that begin the story of the resurrection at dawn, John begins this chapter “while it was still dark.” Of course, the opening phrase of John’s gospel is: “In the beginning.” John wants to take us back to the moment of creation, to another garden from which we were cast out. And the contrast of the darkness of a world without Jesus, and the light we encounter with Jesus: well, that’s quintessentially John.

It’s interesting to note that the very first words Jesus says in John’s gospel are a question directed to the followers of John the Baptist: “What are you looking for?” Here, Jesus repeats almost exactly the same question, asking “Who are you looking for?” It’s a question we should each consider. Who are we looking for? It’s also important that Mary does not recognize Jesus until he calls her by name. I’m wondering whether we can hear him calling our names as well.

In that moment as Jesus calls her name,”Mary”, she knows Him just as He knows his own. And she knows that death has not taken her teacher, her friend, that death has no claim on Him any longer, nor those who follow Him. And that morning, sadness had no more claim on her life, and I pray that it has no more claim on ours.

Mary saw it: the kingdom of God had broken into the world. The kingdom of God is coming into the world. The kingdom of God will come into the world. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2013 James R. Dennis

To Whom Can We Go?

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:56-69.

The Lectionary brings us now to the final and critical passage from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. To place it in context, Jesus has fed the five thousand, has walked on water, and now tries to teach the crowd about his flesh and blood as the road to eternal life.  That message does not go over so well.

John reports that many in the crowd could not accept this “difficult” teaching. Even some of his disciples muttered and complained.  As we hear about the disciples grumbling about this teaching, we hear the echo of God’s people grumbling about bread in the wilderness during the Exodus.  Jesus knew the crowd found His teaching offensive; his words were scandalous and incendiary, and the crowd began to turn away.

We shouldn’t judge those who turned away too harshly; Jesus’ teachings ran contrary to scripture. Leviticus clearly instructed, “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people.” Lev. 17:10.  We find the same prohibition in the Book of Genesis:  “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Genesis 9:3-4.

Leviticus reveals the reasons for this prohibition: For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. Lev. 17: 14. Moreover, this is one of the “I Am” passages in John’s gospel in which Jesus identifies himself with YHWH (“I am who am”). Thus, the crowd would have struggled with Jesus’ teaching on several levels.

Jesus instructs the crowd to consider the ways of heaven, and turn away from their focus on the ways of this world. He tells them, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Scripture taught them not to eat blood because it contained the essence of life.  Jesus tells us that He wants His very life coursing though our veins, through our lives. His spirit will become our food, the life force animating and running through us.

John tells us that many in the crowd turned away from Jesus, turned back into “the things of the past” (eis ta opiso in the Greek). They returned to a spiritual life that was more traditional comfortable, more comfortable. They returned to a religious life that seemed much more safe.

Now we reach the climax, the fulcrum upon which the entire sixth chapter of John (in which we’ve spent several weeks) turns. Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks them, “Are you going to leave me, too?”  And Peter (stumbling, clumsy Peter) responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter’s answer, in one sense, is heartbreaking:  “Where else are we going to go?”  It’s a question we sometimes ask ourselves as we confront the heartbreaking moments in our lives.

The disciples have come to that remarkable point at which there’s really no turning back for them.  Wherever Jesus is going, no matter how difficult, that’s their path as well. Whatever they’ve found in Jesus is beyond this world, beyond the Temple, and yes, beyond “religion”. They are coloring outside the lines now, because the life of Christ has begun to run through them.

In the past, I’ve written about the tremendous mystery of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.  In this passage, we see the Twelve drawn into perhaps the greatest mystery of all: God’s deep and abiding love for us. I pray that we will all be drawn by the Father into that mystery, until the life of the Holy One flows in and through us.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

The Bread That Came Down From Heaven

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” John 6:51-58.

This week, the Lectionary’s Gospel passage offers us Jesus’ assurance, an assurance linking the Eucharist to eternal life.  Before we get there, however, it’s worth putting this text in a bit of context.

First, let’s look at the historical context.  In first century Palestine, bread wasn’t simply one of the four basic food groups, something nice to eat with a hearty meal.  More often than not, bread was the meal.  In other words, bread generally stood between a person a starvation; bread was the difference between living and dying.

If we turn to the textual context, we find earlier in the same chapter that Jesus fed the five thousand with a meal of bread and fish. I think John uses this passage to explore the truth and the mystery of the loaves and the fishes.  In the midst of want and hunger, Jesus used bread to teach the crowd about God’s abundance and love for them. Within the same chapter, Jesus appears to the disciples who are terrified when they see him walking on water. So, within this chapter, we see Jesus taking away our hunger and our fear.  Now, we come to today’s reading.

Jesus assures the crowd that he will “abide in” those who partake of his flesh and his blood. It’s pretty clear that the Christian community in which John dwelt had an established Eucharistic tradition, and John’s Gospel links the Eucharist to  Jesus making a permanent home with those who share in that great feast. Through the bread and the wine, we invite Jesus into our lives and take comfort in His promise that He will remain with us through all the things that frighten us: hunger, frailty, and even death.

Six times within this chapter St. John uses Greek word καταβαινω, which we translate as “came down” or “descend.” John’s Gospel presents us with a deeply incarnational narrative:  the story of God coming down to dwell with us in the flesh. That incarnational theology is deeply tied to the Eucharist:  Jesus said “This is body.  This is my blood.”  This isn’t philosophical or ethereal; Jesus invites us to share in a real feast. He invites us to feast on His life.

Jesus invites us to share in a deep sacramental mystery.  Somehow, our new life (abiding with Him) lies in that bread and that wine. I don’t pretend to understand how this works but as C.S. Lewis observed in Letters to Malcolm, “The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.” I pray we all take and eat of the Living God who came down and dwelt among us, and who abides with us still.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

The Still Hour

    

So beautiful is the still hour of the sea’s withdrawal, as beautiful as the sea’s return when encroaching waves pound up the beach, pressing to reach those dark rumpled chains of seaweed which mark the last high tide.
     We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships.  We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb.  We are afraid it will never return.  We insist on permanence, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth and fluidity–in freedom in the sense that dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.  The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping even.  Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.

Today’s reading from Celtic Daily Prayer suggests a problem many of us struggle with in our spiritual lives:  the gravitational pull of the past and present which distracts us from the current movement of the Spirit. I wonder if that’s not, in part, what Jesus had in mind when he said, “[I]f I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.”  John 16:7.  As long as Jesus remained physically with the apostles, they were trapped in the memory of their failures or lost in their Messianic expectations for the future.  God had something quite different in store for them.

The past and the future bind us in a kind of Pushmi-pullyu struggle.  We hear this in our churches regularly.  “I really liked the music before they changed it” or “I’m really worried about the direction our new minister is moving the church.”  I think we do something similar in our own lives.  “I was not brought up in a home where reading the Bible was important so that’s just not a big part of my spiritual life.”  “Maybe once the kids are gone we will go to church more regularly.”  We feel the gravitational pull of the past and the present, sometimes longingly, sometimes full of anxiety, but always distracting us from the present moment.

Sometimes, we encounter the diversion of longing for a time when we felt really close to God, or when church offered a more meaningful experience.   In Letters to Malcolm,  C.S. Lewis compared this to shouting “Encore!” to God.  We tell the Almighty things were better before, and want Him to make it like it used to be.  Lewis wrote, “It would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. And how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once.”

Whether we find ourselves diverted by the past or the future, we confront the difficulty of locating God (and ourselves) in the present moment.  The movement away from the immediate always assumes that God’s presence today will not suffice.  We go chasing after a richer yesterday or running away from a distressing tomorrow, and run the risk of overlooking the presence of the Spirit today.  Perhaps we undervalue the advice of the psalmist:  “Be still and know that I am God.”

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis