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Week Three: Christ the Bread of Life
In this third week of our online retreat, we continue to take a long, loving look at the reality of Jesus Christ. This week we gaze on Christ through a lens that is very familiar to Catholics: Christ as the one who gives himself to us as food for the journey of our lives. I invite you to begin this reflection by a prayerful reading of John 6: 51-58 (Online Bible Resource).
These verses in John’s Gospel appear at the end of the lengthy Bread of Life Discourse. Scripture scholars remind us that in this Gospel Jesus is depicted as drawing on rich motifs in the Hebrew Scriptures to speak of who he is and what he does for those who believe in him. In the earlier sections of chapter 6, the symbol of “bread” refers in a particular way to the revelation that Jesus offers. Jesus feeds people by revealing the Father to them in word and deed. He is the enfleshed wisdom of God who satisfies people’s hunger for God. In verses 51-58, the language of “bread” contains a clear allusion to the eucharist. Francis Moloney, a scholar of the Gospel of John, says this: “The eucharist renders concrete, in the eucharistic practice of the Christian reader, what the author has spelled out throughout the discourse. The eucharist is a place where one comes to eternal life” (The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina Commentary , p. 224).
What does it really mean to encounter Christ in the celebration of the eucharist? What does it mean for our relationship with Christ and with other people? For Catholic Christians, celebrating the eucharist is part of our normal, routine life of faith. We do it all the time and know it by heart. It can seem quite ordinary. It becomes so familiar to us that we can sometimes go through Mass with our minds a thousand miles away from what we are doing. Even for me as a priest who presides at the eucharist, I can sometimes find myself distracted with worries and concerns and not concentrating very well on what it is that I am doing.
In a pastoral letter written some years before he died of cancer, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago, said this: “It is in the eucharist that we discover who we are and whose we are.” I have always found that statement to be illuminating. In the eucharist we discover our true identity as Christians because we come to realize to whom we really belong. This means that we Catholic Christians are at heart a eucharistic people.
The eucharist is a mystery that is very rich and multi-dimensional. It is like a magnificent diamond that has many facets. For our retreat reflection, I would simply like to suggest one dimension of what it means for us as Catholic Christians to be a eucharistic people. As those who come to Christ the Bread of Life, we are a people who keep a memory and who live by a story.
Stories are so important in our lives. Just think of some of your own treasured family stories that you share with parents, siblings and other friends. Call to mind, too, stories of important moments with good friends that have shaped your life. These remembrances help us to keep in mind who we are and where we have come from. Our personal identity comes from our memories, and the important stories housed in our memories shape that identity. They enable us to come to a deeper appreciation of the people we love. Those memories also help us to keep hope alive, especially in difficult times.
Growing up as the youngest member of a large family, I listened to my mother and older siblings tell family stories around the dining room table. They would often launch into these stories, both serious and humorous, after big family dinners. Sometimes those stories were about my father, who had died when I was three years old. I listened very closely to those stories because I had always wanted to know my dad. I had faint memories of him in the deep recesses of my memory. But he had died before I really got a chance to know him. So I listened very closely to those family stories about my father. Occasionally those stories would be about the days when my dad was a baseball pitcher. My dad had been a fine pitcher who played semi-pro ball and was scouted by the Washington Senators. He was not able to sign a contract with the Senators because he became ill with serious diabetes and had to quit the game. I loved baseball and used to pitch myself, though not nearly as well as my father. So I would listen intently to those baseball stories, no matter how many times I had heard them before. They always seemed fresh and new to me. It was through those stories that I came to know my father. It was through those memory-filled meals around the dining room table that my father became present to me, a companion to me.
Every time we celebrate the eucharist, we tell the story of God’s saving love for his people. We make memory of the redemptive, life-giving love of God that culminated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We tell that story by proclaiming and listening to the Scriptures. We continue to recount that story throughout the liturgy, especially in the great eucharistic prayer that the priest prays in the name of all the people. The center of that story is Jesus Christ, in his self-offering for us. All of us in the congregation give our assent to the truth and significance of that story as we sing the “great Amen.” We make memory of this Jesus, who is the Bread of Life, who gave himself completely for us and who continues to give himself to us in the eucharist. In that living memory, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we experience the real presence of Jesus as we receive his body and blood. We experience communion with this Jesus who lives, who is risen and alive. As Jesus offered himself for us on the cross, so he offers himself to us in this sacrament to be our food, our strength along the way.
Stories help to shape our vision of life and of people. Certain stories have a profound impact on our personal and spiritual development; they become guiding narratives for our lives. We internalize those stories from many different sources: from our families and friends; through the education we have received; from our national and ethnic heritage; and from a host of other places. Sometimes these stories can be conflicting and can have a negative impact upon us. So, in our society we are constantly bombarded with the message that our worth as persons depends upon how much we accumulate for ourselves. We are presented with “success stories” of people who have managed to accumulate massive amounts of money, possessions, power, influence and/or prestige. This is a story -- a kind of social narrative -- that has a deep impact on the way we see things and the priorities we set in our lives. Our vision is also shaped by the stories we hear in movies, television sitcoms, and popular music. Did you ever listen closely to the stories about people and life that are told in hip-hop songs? In our own personal development, we may have heard and internalized a story that subtly told us we would never amount to very much. We may have a tiny “ipod” playing inside of our minds and hearts that tells us that we will never quite measure up to the expectations of others.
One of the many reasons that you and I need to celebrate the eucharist faithfully is so that more and more we will allow this story – the story of God’s faithful, saving love in Christ – to become the guiding narrative of our lives. If we truly enter into the mystery of the eucharist, the truth of Jesus Christ begins to shape our vision of ourselves, of others, of what is really significant in life. This story reminds us again and again how important -- how treasured -- each one of us is in the eyes of Christ. Through our communion with Christ in this sacrament, we deepen our friendship with him and allow him to shape the ways we see, decide, and act.
In and through the eucharist, we experience communion with Christ and communion with one another. There is a oneness with Christ in receiving him that is unique in our human experience. It is a closeness that exceeds expression in words or even in fancy theological explanations. And there is also meant to be a communion with our sisters and brothers in the eucharistic assembly and all those with whom we are united in faith. In his encyclical, God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI speaks about this communion that takes place in the eucharist. He writes, “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can only belong to him with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians” (n. 14).
At the end of every celebration of the eucharist, the priest or deacon says, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” The eucharist never simply ends, as a play, movie or baseball game ends. No, we are sent forth, sent forth with a mission . In every celebration of the eucharist, you and I are commissioned to go forth and to proclaim the story of Jesus Christ with our lips and our lives. As we have been blessed with the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, so we are sent forth to make Christ’s presence real to others. As Christ the Bread of Life has given us himself to be food for the journey of our lives, so we are sent forth to feed the hungry people we meet. As we have experienced communion in this celebration, we are sent forth to work to strengthen the bonds of communion between the people with whom we live and work. As a eucharistic people, we Catholic Christians are a people with a mission.
As Cardinal Bernardin expressed it, in the eucharist we discover who we are and whose we are. We are blessed to recognize again and again that we belong to Christ. We discover how worthwhile we are in his eyes. In the eucharist Christ the Bread of Life gives us himself in order to make us his own. In your prayer on this day of retreat, I invite you simply to express your own gratitude to Christ for the gift of the eucharist. If your regular practice is to celebrate the eucharist on Sundays, you may wish to participate in this celebration one extra day this week. Ask Christ for a deeper appreciation of this sacrament and a willingness to enter into it with faith and enthusiasm. Pray for the grace to make his presence real to others. The eucharist is a gift, and in this life, there is no greater gift that we could ever receive.
Reflection During the Week (Online Bible Resource)
Tuesday – Pray Psalm 34. Read it slowly and reflectively, a couple of times. Pay special attention to verse 9: “Learn to savor (taste and see) how good the Lord is.” In reflecting on Christ as the Bread of Life we recognize him as the one who satisfies our deepest hungers. In your prayer today, think about the things that you hunger for at this point in your life. What is it that you desire most ardently in your life? Identify those deeper desires and bring them to Christ. Ask him for grace to recognize where your desires intersect with his will for you.
Wednesday – In the context of reflection on the eucharist, we have been thinking about the power of memory and of story in our lives. In your prayer today, recall one memory that has been particularly life-giving for you. It may be a memory of a person, an important event, or even a place. How has that memory shaped your understanding of yourself, of God, of other people? What is it from that memory that you want to treasure and preserve? Offer your thanks and praise to God for the gift of this memory. In your thanksgiving, you may wish to pray Psalm 147. This beautiful Hebrew prayer reminds us that God has “filled us with finest wheat.”
Thursday – Recall a memory that has caused some pain in your life. This memory may have caused you to doubt yourself, others or even God. Bring that memory to Christ and ask him to enfold it into the story of his saving life, death and resurrection. Is there anything associated with that memory that might be a source of wisdom or of new life? In your prayer, slowly and thoughtfully read Romans 8: 28-39. In this magnificent passage, Paul hymns the indomitable love of Christ. Ask Christ for the grace of greater trust in the power of his love for you, especially in those moments when you struggle with painful memories.
Friday – Read First Corinthians 11: 23-26. In this passage. Paul is reminding a divided Christian community at Corinth about the tradition of the Last Supper, which is the basis of their own celebration of the eucharist. It seems that this community is marked by rivalry, anger and misunderstanding. Our own Catholic Church is experiencing some of these same tensions today. In your prayer today, take some time to pray for the unity and the renewal of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.