Meditation on This Week's Gospel
by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, August 9, 2009:
First Reading: 1 Kings 19:4-8
First Reading (Semi-cont.):
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm: Psalm 34:1-8
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 130
Second Reading: Ephesians 4:25--5:2
Gospel: John 6:35, 41-51
The Gospel for this week has provoked controversy from the moment Jesus said it. Indeed, disagreements about the Eucharist have prompted schisms within denominations, and one might argue, wars have been fought over the issue of what Jesus meant, how literally we're to take his words. People today are no less mystified than they were when they first heard it. Perhaps you've forgotten how strange it sounds, especially if you grew up in a church that had the Eucharist as a centerpiece of worship or held it as a serious sacrament. But take a minute and think about what it is you think is happening when we celebrate communion together.
Are we just remembering Christ's life? Is Communion like a Thanksgiving dinner, where we eat certain foods because they remind us of our ancestors and of our traditions as a family and as a nation?
Do you see Communion as a simple symbol? Or are you like Flannery O'Connor, one of the greatest short story writers of the twentieth century, a Catholic who said, "Well, if it’s just a symbol, all I can say is to hell with it.”
People like Flannery O'Connor see the sacrament as so much more. In her book Girl Meets God, Lauren F. Winner argues for restoring an older term for the Eucharist: Viaticum: "Viaticum was a Roman term; it designated the food, clothes, and money that a Roman magistrate took with him when he traveled on state business, . . . the necessaries he needed to get him through his trip" (188). The term was first used with deathbed rites, but came to be used for any Eucharist. It's a term that reminds us how necessary the Eucharist should be to us. Winner quotes an unnamed minister who calls it "the sacrament of maintenance" (188). If you wonder why we dutifully offer Communion each and every Sunday, you might, in fact, fault the Church for not making it available on a daily basis.
Henri Nouwen spent much of his writing talking about Communion, trying to impress upon his readers how important it is. In Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, he says, "The Eucharist is the sacrament by which we become one body. . . . It is becoming the living Lord, visibly present in the world" (reading for Oct. 13). In the reading for the next day, he says, "We who receive the Body of Christ become the living Christ." Nouwen argues for a mystical--yet very real--transformation: the wine and bread transform themselves into blood and body which then transforms us from ordinary sinful human into Christ.
We are hungry for that transformation, but like those people who followed Christ from shore to shore, hoping for a free meal, we often don't know what we hunger for (perhaps this explains why so many of us shop compulsively, eat compulsively, drink compulsively, gulp down anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants). We want to do God's work in the world, but there's so much work to do, and we're so tired before we even get started.
Our Scriptures remind us in both the Old and New Testaments that God provides. God gives us both physical food and spiritual food. But we must be receptive. God won't open our mouths and chew for us.
Our ancestors would have seen the temptation to skip church and sleep in for what it was: the devil trying to lead us astray. We are in such desperate need of spiritual renewal. We think we need sleep, but we need communion (and I use that word on all sorts of levels).We are in the dog days of summer, when it seems so long until we feel Fall's coolness. We may be in a bit of a spiritual funk, as well. I often find August a slow slog, spiritually. We're deep into that long, green season, but so far away from Advent. And now we hit week after week of bread Gospels.
But of course, the Gospels point the way out of my spiritual doldrums. Perhaps it is time to return to a bread baking regimen. I can watch the yeast work its magic and contemplate the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. I can share that bread with others and take a moment to catch up. I can end the day with a Psalm, a glass of wine, a prayer of thanks. In the morning, as I bathe, I can remember my baptism and pray, "Preserve me with your mighty power that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord" (found throughout the 3 volume set The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle). Then, fortified, I can do the work of the week before returning again to the sacraments of Sunday.