Is the Eucharist just a myth like the fountain of youth?

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B | John 6:51-58

You have probably heard the myth about the fountain of youth. It has been told in various forms for over two and a half thousands years. The myth relates that somewhere in the world there exists a special fountain. Anyone who bathes in this fountain, the story goes, will be restored to their youth. As a result, anyone with access to this fountain would never die. In short, the fountain of youth could rightly be called a cure for death. It is a guarantee of immortality.
The Fountain of Youth, Lucas Cranach (1546) [source]
In Jewish tradition, there was an ancient expectation that one day there would be a remedy for death. We all probably remember what happened to Adam and Eve after they gave in to the serpent’s temptation and ate the fruit that God forbade them to eat. One of the results of their sin was that they were expelled from Eden and no longer had access to the tree of life (Gen 3:24). As a result of their sin, they and their descendants would die. Before Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, God told the serpent that there will be an ongoing conflict the serpent's offspring and the descendants of Eve. God said that the woman’s descendants would strike at the head of the serpent and that the serpent's offspring would strike at their heal (Gen 3:15). In some ancient Jewish texts (e.g. Targum Jonathan and Targum Neofiti, Aramaic translations/paraphrases of the Bible), we find an insertion after this line, which expresses a particular interpretation of this passage of scripture. These texts expand God’s speech to the serpent. After stating that the descendants of the woman and the serpent would be caught in a battle, harming one another, God says that for the woman’s descendants there would be a “cure”, whereas for the snake's offspring there would be no “cure”. This cure was to come in the days of the messiah. It seems, therefore that the author of these texts expected that there would, at the time of the messiah, come a cure for the effects of sin and temptation. In other words, there would be a remedy for death, the terrible consequence of sin.

In the Gospel today (John 6:51-58), Jesus presents himself as the cure for death. Jesus, the Messiah, says to the people, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day”. Here, the flesh and blood that we are invited to eat and drink is the Eucharist, which is Jesus himself. For this reason, Ignatius of Antioch (died 107) called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality”. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. Since Jesus destroys sin, he has conquered death (cf. 1 Cor 15:55-57). Therefore, the Eucharist, which is the very flesh and blood of Jesus, is the cure for death.

It takes faith to believe that Jesus is the medicine of immortality. Even though we receive the Eucharist, we will still eventually die. How can we believe Jesus’ promise that he will raise us up on the last day? What prevents us from thinking that what Jesus offers is no better than the mythical fountain of youth? To my mind, there is only one answer: faith in the resurrection of Jesus. If we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then we can believe that he will be true to his word and raise us up as well. Speaking personally, believing in the resurrection can be a difficult thing. Sometimes it is extremely difficult. Yet, I continue to believe. I believe because of the testimony of the apostles who claimed to witness the risen Jesus. Peter and the others - who were so afraid when Jesus was crucified that they all fled - gave their lives for the message that Jesus rose from the dead. I believe because of the holiness of the saints. Recently, with the revelations of terrible sexual abuse and coverup within the Church, we have seen once again that some people who call themselves Christians have committed horrendous crimes. Yet, there are still Christians who have lived and continue to live lives of extraordinary service and love. These saints (whether they be the famous ones or those who live their lives in obscurity) give me hope. They fill me with faith that the Risen Christ lives in them. I believe because I have experienced some small part of the life Jesus comes to bring. I have experienced his forgiveness and love. I have been inspired by his words I read in the Gospel. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus is not easy, but there are reasons to believe. If we have faith in the resurrection, then we can believe in Jesus’ words that if we eat his flesh and drink his blood we will live forever.

At every Mass, we have the opportunity to reaffirm our faith that Jesus, truly present in the Eucharist, is the medicine of immortality, the cure for death. When we receive the Eucharist, we say “amen”, a word that means “I believe” or “I trust”. What do we believe? Who do we trust? Let us think about what we are saying. When we say “amen”, let us make it an act of trust in Jesus, showing that we believe his words: “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day”.

How we reject God's help

19th Sunday Ordinary Time, year B | 1 Kings 19:4-8; Jn 6:41-51

I find it difficult to ask for and accept the help of others. For example, I hate asking for directions. Lucky for me, with GPS I no longer need to do this when I drive. There are still situations where I should to ask for directions, like when I am in the grocery store looking for something on the shelves and cannot find it. Still, I hate asking for help. I would rather walk around trying to find the thing for ten minutes than stopping for 30 seconds to ask an attendant. Sometimes, after not finding what I was looking for, I have simply left the store without it instead of getting help. This, I know, is foolish. Assistance is always available. I just need to ask.
Elijah fed by an Angel, Ferdinand Bol [source]
In different ways, we all find ourselves in difficult situations where we need help. Here I am thinking of circumstances far more serious than not being able to find a particular soup in the grocery store! In the first reading we find the prophet Elijah in dire straights. God had sent Elijah on a mission to call Ahab, an evil king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (see 1 Kings 16:29-33), to conversion. In response, Ahab threatened to kill Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-2), forcing Elijah to flee for his life. In the first reading, Elijah is at the point of giving up, having lost all hope that he would live, let alone complete his mission. “Enough!”, Elijah cried out to God, “now, O Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4). Do you now find yourself in a difficult situation? Although our circumstances are perhaps not as severe as Elijah, we all encounter hard times in which we need help and feel like giving up: seemingly impossible challenges in relationships (marriage, friendship, etc.); unemployment; struggles with addiction; or disillusionment with those in positions of (maybe even with the Church).

When we find ourselves in the the midst of such struggles, sometimes we do not accept the help that God offers. “Who would do something so counterproductive like refusing God’s assistance?” you might be asking. The people in the Gospel are one example (John 6:41-51). Jesus is trying to explain to them that he will give them life. He is the bread from heaven that will nourish them on their journey through life, just as the people of Israel were nourished by manna during their years of wandering in the wilderness. Unlike Elijah, who accepted the nourishment God gave him, the people reject Jesus. They complain and make excuses rather than accepting the help he offers. For many of the struggles we encounter in life, like those serious situations mentioned above, we need to ask other people for help (doctors, counsellors, etc.). At the same time, we need God’s help too. God is always there, ready to give important assistance in our difficulties. He can provide peace, hope and a sense of direction. God wants to help. Sometimes we do not give Him the chance.

One way we prevent God from assisting us is by not spending time with Him in silence. Mother Teresa was found of repeating, “in the silence of the heart God speaks”. If we do not find opportunities for silence, then we will have a hard time hearing the voice of God that consoles and directs us. Elijah sought out God in solitude and silence. He cried out to him in the midst of his anguish and God gave him the strength to continue. Finding times to be alone in silence with God is not easy. We live in a noisy, busy world. We have to fight to carve out silence in our lives. Mother Teresa lived a very active life, often in loud and chaotic urban environments. Because she knew she needed God’s help, she sought him out early each morning in a time of silent prayer. We need to be intentional, and perhaps a bit creative, in finding moments to be alone with God. Maybe when we are driving to work we could turn off the radio and let the car become a place of silence. After we wake up in the morning we could perhaps spend the first couple minutes asking God for help in our day. When we have a few extra minutes of time, like when we are waiting for the bus or have some lull in our day, instead of reaching to look at our cell and check social media or the news we could turn our thoughts to God who is always present with us. In the silence of the heart God speaks. If we have no silence in our life, we may miss what God says to us. In this way, we don’t let him help us.

Just as it is self-defeating (and even a bit foolish!) for me to leave a grocery store without an item rather than asking someone for help, we harm ourselves when we don’t let God help us. Living in such a noisy world, this is only too easy do. The good news, however, is that God always wants to assist us when we encounter difficulties. Let us allow him to help us! What is one way that you can find time to be alone with God in silence each day?

Misunderstanding Signs

Year B, 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time | John 6:24-35
Think of an engagement ring. What is better, the ring, or what that ring symbolizes? Certainly, the physical ring is good, but we would all probably agree that what the ring symbolizes is better. The most important thing is that an engagement ring is sign of the love and commitment of the couple. That said, it is easy focus on the good thing rather than on the better thing. In today’s Gospel (John 6:24-35), we find Jesus correcting people for focusing on the externals of a sign - the good thing - rather than what the sign represents - the better thing. It is as though they want the engagement ring and not what the ring symbolizes!

Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea, J. Tissot [public domain, Wikimedia Commons]
The concept of “sign” is of fundamental importance in the Gospel of John. A sign is some miraculous action of Jesus that reveals a heavenly truth Jesus has come to transmit. While the miraculous action is something good, the divine truth is something better(1). The importance of signs is evident in the very structure of the Gospel as it can be divided into two parts: the Book of Signs (1:19 to 12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1 to 20:31). In the Book of Signs, we find seven miraculous actions of Jesus. In the Book of Glory, we find the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, an event which, in its totality, is often viewed as the eight sign in the Gospel. In the Book of Signs, each sign follows a familiar pattern. The sixth chapter of John, from which today’s Gospel is taken, describes one such sign and follows the characteristic pattern neatly. First, Jesus works a miraculous action. This is the external, visible, aspect of the sign. It is something good. We heard about this last Sunday when Jesus multiplied loaves and fish and fed a multitude (John 6:1-15). Next, the people for whom Jesus worked the sign fail to understand its significance. They focus on the physical aspect of what Jesus has done only. This misunderstanding then gives Jesus the opportunity to enter into dialogue with the people and explain the significance of the sign that he has worked. Invariably, he tries to convince the people that what the sign represents is something better than the miraculous action he has worked.

In today’s Gospel, we find that the people have misunderstood the sign that Jesus performed and search after what is good while ignoring what is better. Going back to our previous analogy, the people want the engagement ring and not what the ring symbolizes. After Jesus feeds the people and departs, they go in search of him. When he is ultimately found in Capernaum, Jesus chastises the people for their lack of understanding. They followed him because they want more bread. They fail to grasp the divine truth the sign represents. We should not be too hard on the people in the Gospel. The physical bread that people want is something good. Since for many of us bread is a simple and easily available food, it is easy to lose sight of this fact.  An experience a few years ago helped me understand the importance of bread at the time of Jesus. At the time, I was spending a couple of months studying modern Hebrew in Jerusalem in a class of mostly Arab students, both Christian and Muslim. At the end of the program, we had a party and everyone brought in some food. One of my classmates, a young Muslim woman, brought flatbread that was freshly baked. It was warm and delicious! After we tried some of the bread, she proudly showed pictures of how the bread was made. Her mother had woken up at about 4 am to prepare and cook the bread over a charcoal fire. The class was struck by the act of the kindness the student’s mother had done for us. Her gift helps me understand the the action of the people in the Gospel. Bread took some work to make, even when the basic ingredients were on hand. If someone were to provide you with an abundance of bread, you would realize that they cared for you. It is only natural that they would come back to Jesus for more bread!
The bread!
Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the people, while a good thing, symbolizes a divine truth that is more important. In the Gospel, Jesus seizes upon the misunderstanding of the people and tries to convince them that the sign of the multiplication of the loaves represents something better: Jesus himself is the bread of life. Later in this chapter, Jesus will explain to the people two ways in which he is the bread of life. First, Jesus is the bread of life because his teaching nourishes and gives life like bread (6:35-50). Second, Jesus is the bread of life in the Eucharist, which is the very gift of himself (6:51-58). In today’s Gospel, Jesus tries to convince the people the people to come to him not because he can give them physical bread whenever they want, but because he is the bread of life. Going back to our analogy, this great truth is what the engagement ring symbolizes. It is the better thing.

The Gospel challenges us to come to Mass for the right reasons. This is because at every Mass, we receive Jesus the bread of life both in his teachings we hear in the readings and in the Eucharist. This is the better thing. Like the people in the Gospel that only want physical bread from Jesus, we can come to Mass for the lesser reasons and motivations, looking for something other than the bread of life. We can come because we feel obligated or because we like seeing certain people or simply out of a sense of habit. Although many of our reasons for coming to Mass are good and even though it is preferable to come to Mass for ambiguous motivations than not at all, if we come for the the better reason, namely, to receive Jesus the bread of life, we will probably get more out of Mass. Purifying our motivations for coming to Mass has the added benefit that it helps us put external and secondary things in their proper perspective. There is no Mass at any Church in the world that is done perfectly and according to everyone’s taste. We will always find something that makes the experience of the Mass less than optimal. Maybe the Church is too hot or someone beside us is singing out of tune or perhaps the music, liturgical style and preaching is not to our liking. When we get distracted by these considerations, it can be helpful to remind ourselves why we come to Mass. We are here to receive Jesus the bread of life in his word and in the Eucharist. It might be helpful to do some simple things to reenforce in ourselves a proper motivation for coming to Mass. For example, we could take a look at the readings of Mass before coming. We could try to pay especially close attention to the words and actions of the Mass or participate more in the singing and responses. Or, maybe we could say a simple prayer before Mass starts: “Jesus, I have come here for you”.

Just as the people in the Gospel are corrected by Jesus for focusing on the good, but external aspects of a sign (bread) rather than the better, divine truth it represented (Jesus is the bread of life), the Gospel today challenges us to ensure we come to Mass for the right reasons. Going back to our analogy, today is a chance to evaluate whether we we are focused on the engagement ring or what it represents. We would do well to ask ourselves two simply questions. Why are you here at Mass now now? What can you do to make sure the reason you come is to receive Jesus the bread of life in the word and sacrament?

1) For further discussion, see Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the Gospel of John (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 80-81.