Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 19, 2012 – St. John’s
Each year we interrupt the sequential reading of a Gospel in order to listen to the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, wholly devoted to the theme of Christ as the Bread of Life. With today’s reading we reach the climax of Jesus’ words when “the Bread of Life” takes on a eucharistic meaning: his flesh is real food and his blood real drink, present under the appearances of bread and wine.
An ancient tradition in the Church referred to “the threefold Body of Christ.” There was the physical body of Christ, born of the Virgin, nailed to the Cross, buried, and raised by God and now seated at his right hand. In the Mass, secondly, this Body became present in the bread and wine, present sacramentally, in mystery (as it was said), so that it was called the “mystical” Body of Christ. And finally, there was the Body of Christ that comes to be when believers partake of the Eucharist and, as St. Augustine put it, they become what they eat–that is the Body of Christ that is the Church.
On the earlier understanding, it was this last–the unifying of believers in and as the Body of Christ–that was considered the main purpose of the Eucharistic drama at Mass, and attention focused on the relation between the second and the third meanings of the Body of Christ. But when questions began to be asked about the nature of the presence of Christ’s Body in the bread and wine, the focus began to shift to the relation between the first and the second meanings in order to establish as the faith of the Church that the very Body of Christ is really present in the bread and wine. The result was that people began to think of the Eucharist in itself, apart from its final purpose, the gathering of the Body of Christ that is the Church; the focus of piety began to be centered on individual reception of communion. In turn, people began to think of the Church more in institutional terms, often forgetful of its eucharistic origin and center.
In the decades before the Second Vatican Council scholars began to recover that ancient tradition, and the Council adopted it in some of its main documents. An adage began to be quoted: “The Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church.” That is: the Mass is the moment in which the Church best reveals what it is: a people gathered to give thanks for the salvation proclaimed and preached in the Word of God, while the source of this salvation, the death and resurrection of Christ, are re-enacted in the ritual and its power to save is realized again when individuals receive the Body of Christ that makes all, however many they may be, a single Body of Christ.
So something central to our identity happens each time we come together for the Mass, for the Eucharist, for thanksgiving. The whole thing can become so familiar that we don’t give what we are doing the attention it deserves. At every Mass Christ offers himself as the Bread of Life first in his word, in the Scriptures, and we respond with our Credo: “I believe.” Then he offers himself as the Bread of Life, as his own flesh and blood, when his death and resurrection are recalled and made present, and once again we respond, this time with the great “Amen.” And this unity of faith and of thanksgiving makes us who receive the Eucharist the very Body of Christ.
The movement, the drama, is not supposed to stop there, of course. If the Mass is the high-point of the Church’s life in the sense that we here show what we are by God’s word and grace, it is also the source of our life as the Church in the world, after we leave this celebration. As the Body of Christ, we are supposed to be the presence of Christ to the world, the ones through whom and in whom he continues to speak and act; we are supposed to make a difference in our world by offering people today an opportunity to encounter Jesus of Nazareth because his words direct our lives and his Spirit inspires in us the love that follows his example and fulfills his commandments.
In these times it seems that the chief challenge is for us to bring to the world the peace that we receive at these celebrations. St. Augustine sometimes used the word “Peace,” Pax, as a synonym for the Church: we are supposed to stand in the world as the great sign that reconciliation is possible. Every Mass recalls the peace Christ won for us with God; and as that peace is offered to us once again, and as we are invited to share Christ’s peace with our fellow believers in church, so also we are supposed to be agents of peace in our world, in our families, at work, in our neighborhoods, in our country, in the world. “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” said Christ as the Last Supper, words that we will recall at this gathering. It is our turn now to see to it that his peace flows out beyond this congregation and becomes a force in our world today.