20th Sunday Ordinary Time Jn 6:51-58
For the last four weeks we’ve been reading from the 6th chapter of John’s gospel, the so- called Bread of Life discourses. It all began with Jesus feeding the five thousand people, multiplying a few barley loaves and a couple of fish into a feast. Intrigued by this miracle, the people following Jesus grow in number, chasing him now with reckless abandon, because let’s face it, there’s nothing like a guaranteed free meal. When you’re poor and hungry most days, who can resist being fed? Jesus is growing in power and influence, and to the apostles, this must seem like the exact outcome they’re looking for. Power, prestige, and influence – it’s all coming together.
But Jesus, in his increasingly typical fashion, doesn’t play the power and prestige game. He turns the tables on the crowd by linking bread to his very self, implying without any irony or subtlety that if the people want eternal food then they need to chew on Jesus himself! In today’s gospel he’s asked to clarify what he means, and far from backtracking, he emphasizes his point. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” he exclaims. And as we hear next week, the damage is done. The crowds drift away, shaking their heads in puzzlement, and the five thousand becomes a measly twelve apostles once again.
I was in Ireland for the second and third weeks of this 5-week bread of life discussion. One of the critical historical events in Ireland’s stormy history is the great potato blight of 1845. Potatoes were the absolute staple crop of the poor farmworkers, providing 80-90% of their nutritional needs. When the potatoes were ruined by a fungus, nearly 4 million people were suddenly in grave danger. You see, all of the other crops grown, the barley in particular, was being exported by the British landlords. There is no doubt that famine would be averted if the exports were simply stopped and diverted to the people, but that did not happen. A million people died of starvation over the course of the next 4 years.
A million more boarded famine ships and emigrated to America, or tried to – many thousands died well before reaching Ellis Island. This critical failure of compassion was the seminal event in driving Ireland’s break from British rule, and that country, as well as ours, was never the same again.
There’s no famine in Ireland anymore, at least, not in any obvious way. People seem well fed, as they appear to be here in the U.S. But another type of famine walks the land. It’s not a physical hunger, but it is a spiritual hunger. As is true in most of Western Europe, Catholic church attendance in Ireland has dropped precipitously. Once the most Catholic of all the Catholic nations, now it is Catholic in name and culture, and that’s about it. When we asked on Saturday what time Masses were being held in the village, no one in the hotel we were staying in had a clue. And the sad fact remains that spiritual hunger will kill you just as dead as physical hunger, and like carbon monoxide poisoning, you won’t notice you’re dying. Point of fact, alcoholism rates in Western Europe are nearly double that of the United States. People have simply replaced Church with the local pub, substituting the bread of life for the distilled drink of death. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a drink as much as anyone. But I’ll stop after one, or on occasion, two. The average quantity consumed at a single sitting in Ireland? At least five drinks.
Spiritual hunger is a part of all of our lives. It seems wired into our beings, as if God set us free on this earth with a God magnet pulling us back to Him. Our battle is between our stubborn pride and willfulness and that God magnet, as if God was a person to avoid. We try everything we can to prove to God that we can go it alone, and every path we take fails. The Eucharist is the one food that satisfies – it’s no wonder that this sacrament is the keystone of our Catholic religious life.
There’s a lot of debate going on right now on the topic of individual worthiness and the Eucharist. The two sides are simple enough to describe. On the one hand, you have classic Church teaching that states that those receiving the Eucharist should be baptized Catholics in a state of grace, that is, without grave sin. The idea is that the Eucharist is a privilege, a sign of communion with fellow Catholics, an integral part of the worship experience. This teaching has held sway for many, many years, and is the basis for the prohibition from receiving the Eucharist for those Catholics who have divorced and remarried without having their prior marriages annulled. In the strictest sense, these persons are living in sin. On the other hand, you have a growing opinion in the Church that the Eucharist is as much about healing and growth in holiness as it is about worship. Those in this camp would lower barriers to receiving the Eucharist, under the assumption that denying Jesus to a person in need is cruel and counterproductive. The Synod on the Family that was recently called by Pope Francis is addressing this very debate as we speak. Expect some breathless headlines in the next few weeks.
In the end, it all comes down to why you receive the Eucharist – is it habit? A reason to stretch your legs? Or something more? God, through Jesus, is offering us nourishment that lasts forever. But we have a role too. We need to be engaged in the mystery. I know that sounds a bit new-agey, but if we don’t engage, we’re no better than those followers of Jesus who just wanted a free meal. What does it mean to engage? It means to heighten your awareness, to pay attention to what’s happening. God wants to transform us into images of Jesus. He offers us the opportunity to change, we in turn consume the change agent, the Eucharist. If we’re unwilling to change, nothing will happen! If we’re open to change, something will happen. That something will vary from person to person, but there is a common element. Our appetites, those often addictive qualities of the world we live in, will be diminished. In a very real sense, our hunger will be satisfied.
How do you know if change has happened to you? You’ll go from a person who is looking to be fed to a person doing the feeding. For just as in the feeding of the five thousand, there was plenty of leftovers, so it is with spiritual food. The more we receive the Eucharist, the less spiritually hungry we are and the more we see the world through Jesus’ eyes. And that world, my friends, is hungry for meaning, fulfillment and happiness. Share your food with a starving person – that’s the meaning of the Eucharist. Hunger, food, nourishment, awareness, feeding others. Full circle – and Jesus smiles.
© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach