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Bread for the Journey
by Donald Senior, C.P. | August 14, 2012
SCRIPTURE REFLECTION FOR TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (AUGUST 19, 2012)
Remember the movie where the main character wakes up each morning only to discover that everything will be repeated from the day before? Priests and deacons all over the country will think they are having a “Groundhog Day” experience when they start to prepare for this Sunday’s homily. The gospel for this Sunday and for four Sundays in a row is from the famous “Bread of Life” discourse in John’s Gospel! This long discourse of Jesus is presented as a sermon or reflection that Jesus gave in the synagogue of Capernaum, the town on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, the place where Jesus often stayed and where he performed so many of his healings.
While this Sunday’s excerpt from this discourse may sound a lot like the selection from last Sunday and like the one that comes next week, in fact it is the most central passage in the entire discourse. To get a sense of its meaning, we have to appreciate the Bible’s love of metaphor and symbol. The first reading for this Sunday taken from the Book of Proverbs is a good example. It speaks of “Wisdom” as a metaphor for God’s manifest presence in our world. God is revealed in the beauty of nature, in the proverbial good sense of human experience, and in virtuous lives. Those who, in turn, are able to discover God’s presence in our world are themselves declared truly “wise.” As we can see in this passage from Proverbs, God’s Wisdom can also be described as “food” and “drink.” Here “Wisdom” prepares for a banquet and sets the table and then invites those who need wisdom to come and dine: “Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!”
John’s Gospel frequently draws on imagery from the so-called “wisdom literature” of the Bible (e.g., the Wisdom of Solomon, Proverbs, Sirach, etc.) to describe Jesus and his mission of revealing God’s redeeming love for the world. Like “Wisdom” described in the Book of Sirach, for example, the prologue of John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s Incarnate Word, who “sets up his tent and dwells among us” (compare John 1:14 and Sirach 24:8 ). And here in the Bread of Life discourse we find another place where John uses wisdom imagery to help us understand the incredible love of God for us. Jesus’ very being, his “flesh” and “blood,” becomes “living bread” for us—filling us with life, quenching our deepest longings and needs. John sees this as the very purpose of Jesus’ mission to the world: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (3:16-17).
John’s Gospel demonstrates that Jesus’ entire ministry expresses this love of God through his healings such as healing the son of the royal official, or lifting the paralysis of the man at the pool of Bethesda, or giving sight to the man born blind, or raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. Similarly Jesus also protects a newly married couple from shame by turning water in wine and he feeds the hungry crowds by multiplying a few provisions into abundance. John’s Gospel also applies to Jesus a host of titles that speak of his restoring life to the human spirit: he is the “way”, the “truth,” the “living water,” the “light of the world,” “the Good Shepherd.” And the ultimate expression of God’s love for the world is revealed paradoxically in Jesus’ death—because for John’s Gospel the meaning of that death at its deepest level it is not a terrible accident or a wanton act of injustice inflicted on an innocent man but an act of love on the part of Jesus who for the sake of his mission is willing to make the most noble of human actions on behalf of another—to lay down his life for those whom he loves (John 15:13).
Our gospel passage for this Sunday restates this fundamental mission in Jesus’ own words: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” John’s Gospel often expresses things in a different way than the other gospels. In the passion stories of Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus says the words of consecration over the bread at the Last Supper: “This is my body given up for you”; in John this same message of ultimate love and sacrifice comes here in the middle of Jesus’ mission as he speaks in the synagogue of Capernaum: “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
As Christians we believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine. But John’s Gospel reminds us that this presence—this true body and blood of Christ—is not an inert reality. It is a presence that embodies God’s intense love for the world—Jesus’ giving of his life out of love for us. In an astounding way—one that would shock Jesus’ contemporaries as reported by John—we are invited to “eat this flesh” and “drink this blood,” to receive into our very beings the loving presence of the God revealed in Jesus.
There is a beautiful term used when one receives the Eucharist as part of the sacrament of anointing: “viaticum” – literally bread “to take with you on the journey.” In a sense every Eucharist we receive is “viaticum,” vital nourishment to keep us alive spiritually. In the privilege of receiving the true presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we take into us and with us the one whose whole life was an act of love—healing, forgiving, feeding and inspiring and rescuing others. As we hear John’s Gospel this Sunday let us pray for a deeper and stronger realization of what the Eucharist means for us and how it can transform us as we continue our journey of life.
Donald Senior, C.P.
Donald Senior, C.P., holds a Licentiate in theology (S.T.L.) from the University of Louvain, Belgium and a Doctorate in New Testament Studies (S.T.D.) from the University of Louvain. He has pursued further graduate studies at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio and at Harvard University. He serves as the president of Catholic Theological Union and also as a professor of New Testament studies.
A frequent lecturer across the country, Fr. Senior also serves on numerous boards and commissions. He is past President of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada. In 2001, Pope John Paul II appointed him as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and was reappointed in 2006 and 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI. He has been active in interreligious dialogue, particularly with the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Fr. Senior is the General Editor of The Bible Today and co-editor of the twenty-two volume international commentary series New Testament Message. He is the General Editor of The Catholic Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 1990). He has authored and edited several books and articles.
Donald Senior is a member of the following professional associations: The Catholic Biblical Association of America; The Society of Biblical Literature; Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas; The Chicago Society of Biblical Research; The Catholic Theological Society of America; The International Association of Missiological Studies; Pax Christi International.
He has served as an official representative to the Southern Baptist/Roman Catholic Scholars Dialogue, sponsored jointly by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention. Fr. Senior just recently ended his term as President of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada. He is a member of the Board of Directors for Sadlier Publishing Company; the Board of Advisors of the Auburn Center for Theological Education; and the Advisory Committee of the Henry Luce III Fellowship program; and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada. In 1994 he was awarded the Jerome Award for outstanding scholarship by the Catholic Library Association of America. In 1996, the National Catholic Education Association awarded him the Bishop Loras Lane Award for his outstanding contribution to theological education. He is a past President of the Catholic Biblical Association of America (1997-98).