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Lost in Translation
by Birgit Oberhofer | August 9, 2012
Scripture Reflection for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Sunday, August 12, 2012)
1 Kings 19:4-8
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In today’s Gospel reading we witness an argument between Jesus and his fellow Jews. The starting point is Jesus’ self-revelation: “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” This statement is hard to swallow for his friends and neighbors: “But he is the son of Joseph. We have seen him grow up. He played with our kids. We know who he is. How can he say he came down from heaven?”
Being from another country, I know how confusing it is when different words are used for the same reality. We encounter a similar problem in this story, only the other way round: The same words are used for different realities. Is it true that Jesus grew up as the son of Joseph and Mary? Yes! Is it true that he came down from heaven? Yes! Both are true, but they refer to different realities. One is the natural, physical reality and another one is the supernatural, spiritual reality.
A few years ago, a young woman who considered herself an atheist asked me: “What is faith for you?” It’s a tough question, and I had to think about it for while. For me it is hard to imagine a life without faith. And how can you explain something you are so used to? At the end I answered something like this: “To have faith means that I interpret the events of my life through the lens of the supernatural reality I believe in.” – I am translating. In our scientific and empiric world view, we can sometimes forget that there is a supernatural reality that truly exists and affects our lives. Sometimes we need to make an effort and “translate” natural events into their supernatural meaning.
At the end of her life, St. Theresa of Lisieux suffered from acute Tuberculosis. Usually a hemorrhage of the lungs indicates the final stage of the disease. When she first spat up blood, St. Theresa knew what it meant. But she didn’t say “I had a hemorrhage.” She said: “My Spouse has arrived.”1 What is true? Did she have a hemorrhage? Yes! Did it mean that Jesus, her Spouse, was about to welcome her into eternal life? Yes! It is our faith that makes us “translate” the natural events and gives them a deeper meaning. With this “translation” we don’t deny the scientific reality of things – that would be superstition. But we interpret them in the light of our faith.
Jesus says: “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.” These are tough statements. They were hard to believe for the Jews in Jesus’ time and they are hard to believe for us as well. We have to do a lot of “translation” to understand the supernatural meaning behind his words. The host that we receive at communion still looks like a piece of bread, but we know and believe that after the consecration, we consume the body of Jesus. And it is the participation in his body and blood that gives us eternal life, even though we know that we will die a physical death.
The great thing about our faith is that the natural and supernatural reality of our lives are not separated, but are connected with each other through the person of Jesus – the God made human. We cannot simply count on the “magic” of a supernatural world, like we see it in many movies. When the angel of God brought bread and water to Elijah, it was because he had real work to do and needed to be strengthened. After he ate and drank, he got up and “then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.”
The same is true for us today. Jesus wants to strengthen us with the bread of life that he gives us so that we may reach eternal life. But we also have to do our part. And St. Paul talks about our part in the letter to the Ephesians: “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us …” In our life as Christians, the natural and supernatural realities have to become one. One can’t be without the other. Translation becomes natural. In Christ, our natural actions, our human existence become divine – an imitation of God’s being, of a God who is Love.
As we gather for the Eucharist this Sunday let us reflect on the beautiful and profound reality that the Communion with Christ opens to us. But let us also remember the invitation to respond to it with all our humanness – by living out Jesus’ message of love, justice and forgiveness.
1 Therese of Lisieux: Story of a Soul, transl. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington D.C.: ICS Publications, 1996), pg. 211
Birgit Oberhofer is originally from Munich, Germany where she graduated from Ludwigs-Maximilians-Universität with a Master of Arts in Education Science, Psychology and Theology in 1999. After two years of formation in Italy she became a consecrated member of the Focolare Movement, a lay ecclesial movement, living in one of their houses in Cologne, Germany. There she worked as a program developer and grant writer for one of the biggest charity organizations in Germany, running programs in the field of Adult Formation and Social Work. In December 2007 she moved to Chicago and became the Assistant Director of Catholics on Call in July 2008.