Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 26, 2009 – Blessed Sacrament
Each summer we interrupt the successive reading of one of the Synoptic Gospels (St. Mark’s this year) and devote ourselves for five weeks to a reading of the whole of the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which is entirely concerned with the theme of bread. We begin this exercise today with the account of Jesus’ feeding the crowd with the loaves and fishes, a deed that at the beginning and at the end of our passage is presented as a “sign,” the sign whose significance Jesus will unfold in a long discourse on the bread of life in which what true bread is and what true life is will be explored. John’s Gospel has many similar signs: the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana; the cleansing of the temple; the woman at the well; the healing of the sick man by the pool of Bethsaida; the healing of the blind man; the raising of Lazarus from the grave. In almost every case, the Evangelist first presents the sign and then invites the reader to explore that to which it points either by means of a discourse of Jesus or in the course of a dialogue in which he responds to interpretations of the event that remain on the mere surface of the event.
St. Augustine was alert to this method of the Evangelist. He himself was not particularly interested in the wondrous character of the deed performed: God, he said, does greater things every day. “For certainly the government of the whole world is a greater wonder than satisfying five thousand men with five loaves; and yet no one marvels at the former; but the latter men wonder at, not because it is greater, but because it is rare. Who is it, after all, that even now is feeding the whole world, who but He who creates a cornfield from a few grains?” Augustine wanted his people to look beyond the physical wonder, and he used an arresting image to urge them on. Suppose we came upon a beautiful example of writing, perhaps in a book or carved on a building. It would not be enough for us to praise the skills of the person who had written or carved such beautiful, elegant letters. We would want to understand what the artist was conveying by those letters. Beyond admiring the skill of the artist there is the further step of reading and understanding what he wrote. A person who can do that, Augustine said, has other eyes than the one who can only admire the beautiful letters.
We need other eyes in order to read and understand what Christ was saying through this sign, through the “visible word” of the wonder of the bread. Something is needed in us in order to discern and appreciate what God is revealing to us in the deeds of Christ. That something, as we will see in the next weeks, was lacking in those who simply marveled at what Christ did and followed him in the hope that he would do it again. Of them St. Augustine said: “They were a long way from the bread from heaven, and they did not know how to hunger for it. They had sore throats; although their ears were open, they were deaf; although they could see, they were blind. This bread requires the hunger of the inner man, as is said in another place: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.’”
In the preface to one of his books, the French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote that his work sought readers who were asking questions at a certain level, the implication being that if you were not asking questions at that level, you were likely to find it unintelligible. Aristotle didn’t think a person should study ethics until he had some experience of life and had the appropriate questions. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said: “No one can receive an answer to a question he hasn’t asked.” Teachers sometimes find that students don’t bring the questions that are needed to appreciate a great work of literature or art or philosophy or theology, and it is the art of a good teacher to evoke in students the questions they need in order to understand the work. These are all variations on Augustine’s great insight: the bread that Christ brings, that Christ is, requires that the inner self be hungry, that the heart and mind be hungry.
Catholic theologian David Tracy has said that it is one of the characteristics of a “classic” of literature or of other art that it is able to evoke the questions that are needed in order to appreciate it. By showing us another world, a classic can prevent us from any longer assuming that the world we take for granted is the only possible world; by displaying another possible self, it can cause us to question the self with which we are comfortable; in both cases a classic is urging questions on us that we may not have been asking. This has been the principle by which the classics of biblical interpretation were guided. St. Gregory the Great famously wrote: “The divine Scriptures grow with the one who is reading them.” He meant, I think, that as a reader grows in religious seriousness and authenticity, the Scriptures grow, too; not obviously in the sense that there is a new, enlarged text, but in the sense that one can now see in them a depth and breadth that were not visible until one had grown into the questions that are necessary for that breadth and depth to be visible. Haven’t we all had the experience of reading in one’s mature years a work of literature that we perhaps had to read in high school or even in college, and of finding it to be an almost entirely different work? It’s not that a new text of Shakespeare or of Dickens had been discovered and published, but that a new reader was now reading the old text.
Well, it’s the same with the Scriptures, Gregory says: they grow along with the one who is reading them. Each Sunday we gather in order to listen to the great, the defining, Jewish and Christian “classic,” the Bible, and in order, through the readings, to encounter the great Christian “classic” who is Jesus Christ himself. When in these next weeks Jesus will present himself as “the bread of life,” what he has to say will be intelligible and even appetizing only to those who, as Augustine put it, experience an inner hunger. Christ himself will not be a bread of life for those who are not hungry, who do not think that they need the life that Jesus himself embodies and offers. But if you are hungry for something beyond merely physical food, then you will be in a position to understand and to receive the food that his word can be for you.