10 August 2012

'I am the bread of life.' Sunday Reflections, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

The Charity of St Lawrence, Bernardo Strozzi, painted 1639-40

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings(Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa) 

Gospel John 6:41-51 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

The Jews then murmured at Jesus, because he said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven." They said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?" Jesus answered them, "Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh."

St Lawrence of Rome was martyred on the orders of the Emperor Valerian on 10 August 258, four days after St Sixtus II, Pope, and four deacons. According to tradition Lawrence, who was from Spain and was a deacon, was roasted on a gridiron. Some scholars say that he was probably beheaded, not roasted. But there's no doubt about his martyrdom and the great impression he made on the people of Rome, especially on the poor. When he was asked to bring the Church's treasures he said he would have them in a matter of days. he distributed the Church's goods to the poor, as in Strozzi's painting above, and then brought the people before the authorities saying, 'These are the Church's treasures'.

While being roasted he told his executioners, according to the story that has come down, that they could now turn him over as he was done on one side. Whether this actually happened or not, the story shows us that the people of Rome remembered Lawrence as a man full of loving joy, as the video above shows. I'm almost certain that I've read or heard somewhere, though I can't find anything online to back this up, that those present at the saint's martyrdom smelled the aroma of bread baking as he was being grilled. For those of us who eat bread there is hardly a more pleasant sensation.

I'm writing this on the feast of St Lawrence - technically it's a memorial in the Church's liturgical calendar but has some of the trappings of a feast - and I see this saint as an embodiment of what Jesus is teaching us in the gospel for this Sunday. St Lawrence believed absolutely in the promise of eternal life given by Jesus. His faith was nourished by the Bread of Life that he received when taking part in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This gave him the strength to give himself as 'bread of life' to the poor of Rome, in his great love for the poor and in his willingness to lay down his life.

Pope Benedict XV, Giacomo della Chiesa (1854-1922)

St Lawrence's life was one that integrated the Mass with service to the people, especially the poor. A few years ago I was accosted after Mass outside a cathedral in England where I was doing a mission appeal on behalf of the Columbans by a young man who kept insisting that the Church sell all its buildings and so on in order to help the poor. I'm afraid that after about ten minutes of this my patience gave way somewhat. But St Lawrence did precisely that, though the Church was still a persecuted one and , at the time as far as I know, didn't have too much in the way of buildings. And in more modern times Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) did exactly the same with money at his disposal, both his own and that beloning to the Church in Rome. When he died there was only US$19,000 left in the Vatican treasury.

When the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass if offered in the basilica of St Lawrence, as in every other church, the bread and wine brought to the altar at the offertory become the Body and Blood of Christ. They're not 'symbols' of this. They are the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord Jesus. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No 33, puts it, At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ's Body and Blood. 

Many walked away from Jesus because they couldn't accept his words, I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Fr William Morton, a Columban priest who grew up in a strongly Catholic family in Philadelphia, tells how he lost the faith and re-discovered it while discovering his call to the priesthood. I've highlighted some parts. [By this time he had become part of a 'Born Again' group, which brought him back to Jesus Christ].

Q. What then brought you back to the Catholic Church?

A. Though I agreed with and experienced personally this relationship with Jesus, certain behaviours like smoking, drinking and swearing were stressed as litmus tests of Christian life. There was a lot of quoting of Scripture and arguments about who was saved and who was not. I began to think of the Catholics I knew who didn't quote much Scripture, who smoked or drank, but who were also generous, compassionate and non-judgmental people.

I asked myself: ‘If Jesus came back whose butt would he be kicking?' I concluded that it would more likely be my own, because of my self-righteousness, rather than the man on the street with his bottle.

I was madly in love with one of the girls who sang in our Christian rock group. She had been raised Protestant and one day she asked if we could go to a Catholic Mass. We went to a Saturday evening Mass at St Mary's and it was a lively celebration with guitars and songs and a young, Irish priest who preached with fervour and humour. Though still very much a member of the Church of the Open Bible I had a fleeting ‘I could do that’ thought about the priest.

My girlfriend enjoyed the visit and so we began to go each Saturday evening and then to the Open Bible on Sunday morning.

My mother had also written me a very challenging letter, quoting John 6, and asking me how those who claim to interpret the Bible literally understand the Eucharist. I didn't get any convincing answers and began to hunger to receive again in the Catholic way.

Though I had always disliked confession as a youth I began to long too to hear those words of pardon and absolution and finally made up my mind to seek out a priest. Around this time my girlfriend suggested that we break off for a while to get things into perspective. This upset me at first but thoughts of priesthood and mission continued to float around in my head.

Fr Bill Morton, once an air traffic controller, is now working in the Columban mission in El Paso, Texas / Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the latter one of the most violent cities in the world because of drug wars. Fr Kevin Mullins, a Columban from Brisbane, Australia, is in charge of the Columban parish in Ciudad Juarez.

St Lawrence of Rome enabled the poor there to get bread to keep body and soul together. With the Christians there he took part every Sunday in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, despite the danger. It was from the Bread of Life that he and they got the strength and courage to lay down their own lives.

It was the curiosity of his 'Born Again' girlfriend about the Mass and the clear challenge of his mother about today's gospel that brought the young Bill Morton back to the Church and eventually to the priesthood.

It is the Bread of Life who gives himself to the people of the Columban parish in Ciudad Juarez as they celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday that gives them the courage to live with hope in the midst of awful violence. When Father Kevin went there first only a few came. Now the church is full.

St Lawrence and the poor of Rome in 258, Fr Kevin Mullins and the poor of Ciudad Juarez in 2012, each a place of danger and violence, each a place where people take Jesus at his word: I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

1 comment:

Frances said...

Dear Fr Sean

I see this today of the need to spend time with the Lord and not adapt the fast food approach to the Body and Blood of our Lord - thank you