August 8, 2015

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 9, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

"I am the bread of life." John 6:48
(Click here for today’s readings)

Elijah definitely did not have friends in high places. It didn’t help his cause that he had killed all the prophets of Baal. Their chief patroness, Queen Jezebel, expressed her displeasure in these terms: “May the gods do thus to me and more, if by this time tomorrow I have not done with your life what was done to each of them.” In other words, she ordered a hit on him.

First he fled about ninety miles, from Mount Carmel near modern-day Haifa in northern Israel, to Beersheba, some forty-five miles south of Jerusalem, in the desert. And to top it off, the best shade he could find was from a broom tree, a plant which is adapted to survive extreme drought conditions. It produces very small leaves, which last only a short time.

So Elijah got tired of running away and was ready to give up. “Enough!” he cried, praying for death. God of course had other plans, and Elijah was able to go another eighty miles or so to Mount Horeb, where he was to have a momentous encounter with a “still, small voice,” thanks to the food for the journey provided by the Lord.

Jesus also is food for the journey. He tells us, “I am the bread of life,” and “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

If it were not for the very last sentence of today’s Gospel (and the whole of next Sunday’s), these words of Jesus would fall into the same category as his other “I am” statements as recorded by John: “I am the light of the world... I am the gate... I am the good shepherd... I am the resurrection and the life... I am the way and the truth and the life... I am the true vine.”

Taken only in that context, Jesus’ statement could reasonably be explained as follows (paraphrased from the famous Complete Commentary written between 1708 and 1710 by the Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry): In the desert God gave the Hebrews food from heaven to support their natural lives. Jesus offers the true Bread for the salvation of souls. Jesus is to the soul what bread is to the body, nourishing and supporting the spiritual life. He is the food of our souls.

The meaning of Jesus’ words is thus perceived as symbolic, just like the other “I am” sayings. No one claims, for example, that by saying, “I am the light of the world,” Jesus became the star we call the sun. The meaning is clear and unambiguous.

But in the last sentence of today’s Gospel, Jesus goes beyond the symbolism; that changes everything. It is, as the saying goes, a quantum leap. That will be developed at greater length in next week’s Gospel and homily.

For the moment let us just note that in Catholic teaching, sacraments are defined as “efficacious signs.” They accomplish what they symbolize. The difficulty people encounter in trying to explain this is to strike the balance between mere symbolism on the one hand, and crass literalism on the other. When we say that the Lord acts “sacramentally,” we mean he truly, really acts, but in a mysterious way.

Jesus is our food in both the symbolic and the sacramental sense. These two meanings are not mutually exclusive. In both senses he provides us the strength to live the challenges put forward today in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

Most of this week’s Gospel happens to focus on the deeply rich symbolic meaning of “I am the bread of life.” Even without the final verse of today’s text, this is food for the journey to which even Elijah’s cannot compare.

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