Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord: Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

[I am going to start posting these reflections on the Sunday readings on Tuesday morning rather than Friday, because some have asked to have them available for use at biblestudies or parish groups that meet earlier in the week.]
I've been involved in some form of church ministry--either training for it, practicing it, or training others for it--for over twenty years now, and I know one of the major challenges we face in ministry is burnout.  At Franciscan University we train a large number of prospective youth ministers.  The attrition rate in this field is very high.  I don't have exact statistics, but would not be surprised if half of new youth ministers leave the field for some other line of work within three to five years.

Burnout is a problem for spiritual leaders, but its also a problem for Christians in general.  Following Christ can be difficult, and he warned us clearly and up front: "In this world you will have trouble,"  he said, "But take heart, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).  Again, he told us of the seed that fell on rocky soil that sprouts quickly yet withers, representing those who fall away when trouble or persecution arises.  Likewise, St. Paul had to encourage even the first generation of Christians, "Let us not grow weary in well-doing" (Gal 6:9).

The readings for this Sunday's mass encourage us to find strength and sustenance in Jesus' gift of himself to us in the Eucharist as a remedy for the spiritual weariness that can grow in the Christian life.

Our first reading comes from 1 Kgs 19:4-8:
Elijah went a day's journey into the desert,
until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.
He prayed for death saying:
"This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers."
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,
but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cake
and a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,
but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,
touched him, and ordered,
"Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!"
He got up, ate, and drank;
then strengthened by that food,
he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.
It helps to have a little context to understand this passage.

Elijah was experiencing "ministry burnout."  Just days before, he had won a great show-down with 450 prophets of the false god Baal on Mt. Carmel, calling down fire from heaven and proving, in front of a crowd of thousands, that the LORD alone was the true God (1 Kings 18).  Such a public demonstration of the power of God would seem like a tremendous victory that would lead to repentance and renewal in Israel, but that's not what happened.  The queen of Israel, a Gentile (Phoenician) princess by the name of Jezebel, was incensed by Elijah's victory over her 450 prophets, and vowed to kill Elijah.  When we find him in today's reading, then, Elijah is fleeing for his life.

Elijah was waging a cultural and spiritual war in the kingdom of northern Israel.  The war was between worship of the LORD and worship of Baal.  One of the major cultural issues between these two religious was sexual practices and family life.  Baal was a fertility god, and one of the ways he was worshiped was through ritual sex or "sacred" prostitution.  What to do with the children that resulted? These could be sacrifice to the god (Jer 19:5). Needless to say, the standing of marriage in a culture with these practices was none too high.

By contrast, the law of the LORD had no place for sex outside of a covenant bond between a man and a woman, which would insure that the child resulting would come into the world in the safety of a marriage, wherein he or she could be raised to adulthood by his/her own father and mother.  This is "best practice" for human society.  Marriage in Israel was modeled on God's own fidelity to his covenant with the nation (Mal 2:16 and context).  "Casual" sex, "cultic" sex, promiscuity, and the killing of infants had no place in worship of the God of Israel.

The king of northern Israel, Ahab, had married this Phoenician princess Jezebel, who was a Baal worshiper and was using government authority to promote Baal worship and its debased view of sexuality, marriage, and the value of infant children; and to suppress the religious freedom of the worshipers of the LORD, the God of Israel.

For all his efforts, Elijah was losing this cultural war, and now was in danger of his very life.  We find him fleeing into the wilderness of Judah in order to escape from any of Jezebel's agents.  There he collapses in physical and spiritual exhaustion, and prays for death.

Yet God extends to Elijah a very gentle mercy in this passage.  Twice he sends an angel to him, to awaken him and prod him to eat a mysterious meal: a jug of water and a cake of bread that inexplicably appears nearby.  The nourishment from this food strengthens Elijah for a forty-day fast during his journey to Mt. Horeb (=Sinai), the mountain where God appeared to Moses.  There at Horeb, Elijah will speak with God and his prophetic vocation will be renewed.

In this passage we see God's compassion for the weakness of his prophet, expressed in the provision of this sacred meal which strengthens him for the next step in his prophetic ministry.  In Christ, we "have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tested in every way just as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15).  He knows our weakness and so has provided us day by day with a supernatural meal, the Eucharist, in which he comes into us and supplies the strength of spirit we need to carry on in our vocations.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9:
R. (9a) Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Glorify the LORD with me,
Let us together extol his name.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
And delivered me from all my fears.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy.
And your faces may not blush with shame.
When the afflicted man called out, the LORD heard,
And from all his distress he saved him.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him and delivers them.
Taste and see how good the LORD is;
blessed the man who takes refuge in him.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Psalm 34 is a psalm for the Thanksgiving Sacrifice (Heb. Todah).  When an ancient Israelite went through a crisis (sickness, false legal charges, persecution from enemies), he would pray to God for deliverance, and promise to offer a Thanksgiving Sacrifice when the deliverance occurred.  After God saved him, he would go up to the sanctuary and make good his vow.  The laws of the Thanksgiving Sacrifice (Lev 7:11ff) forced the worshiper to eat the entire sacrificial animal (bull, goat, sheep) before sunrise the next day--in other words, to host a feast.  The meat had to be eaten, so sometimes poor people were recruited to help finish the meal if the worshiper and his friends could not.  So the psalmist says above that "the poor will hear me and be glad"--because, among other things, they will probably get a good meal out of the psalmist's sacrifice.

To summarize, the Thanksgiving Sacrifice took the form of a big meal in the sanctuary courts during which the one offering the sacrifice would give public testimony to the goodness of God, and how God had saved him from his crisis.  The Thanksgiving (or Todah) Psalms, like Psalm 34, were composed to be recited, sung or chanted on these occasions.  As we read or hear Psalm 34 in private meditation or in Mass, we can imagine the ancient Israelite standing in the Temple courts giving testimony to God's goodness while his friends, family, and even poor beggars join him in the festive sacrificial meal.  Some of what he says is applicable to Elijah in our first reading: "The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him ... taste and see how good the LORD is."

And of course, the Psalm points forward to what we are about to do in Mass, celebrating the great Eucharistic (="Thanksgiving" in Greek) Sacrifice, in which we will see ("Behold! the Lamb of God ...") and taste ("The Body of Christ!" "Amen!") the goodness of the LORD.
3.  The Second Reading is Eph 4:30-5:2:
Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,

as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.
St. Paul gives us an important reminder for perseverance in the Christian life.  Although the path of discipleship is difficult, and we can experience various forms of direct or indirect persecution from family members, friends, co-workers, the government, or even within the Church, we cannot give in to "bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling."  There can be a temptation as a Christian to get righteously indignant and to "lash out" at the "bad people" in our lives or society, forgetting that we, too, were and remain sinners, who through no good thing of our own have received forgiveness.  The hording of all these negative emotions--bitterness, fury, anger, etc--and the failure to practice forgiveness exacerbates burnout in the spiritual life.

But St. Paul says: "Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ."  By failing to practice forgiveness, we harm ourselves.  Remember that God is forgiving, and in the Lord's Prayer, our own forgiveness is linked to our willingness to forgive others.

St. Paul calls us to imitate God: "Be imitators of God ... and live in love."  He then makes an allusion to the Eucharist: "Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma."

The "sacrificial offering" by which Christ "handed himself over for us" is the great Thanksgiving (Todah) Sacrifice described in the Psalm and celebrated in the Eucharist.

Let's practice the forgiveness appropriate to a Eucharistic people.  Yes, sometimes when we forgive, it feels like we are dying inside and "giving ourselves over to" the one who harmed us.  But the Christian life is an imitation of our God Jesus, who died and rose again to new life.  After the "death" we experience through forgiveness, we "rise" to a new life.  Following Christ is always a practice of death and resurrection--when we start "holding on" to our present life and refuse to die daily, that's when it becomes burdensome and impossible to make progress.

4.  The Gospel is John 6:41-51:
The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said,
"I am the bread that came down from heaven,"
and they said,
"Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?
Do we not know his father and mother?
Then how can he say,
'I have come down from heaven?'"
Jesus answered and said to them,
"Stop murmuring among yourselves.
This part of the reading continues themes from last week.  Take note of the "murmuring" of the crowds.  This is a reference to the First Reading from last week, Exodus 16, where the congregation of Israel "murmured" against Moses and Aaron in the desert.  Jesus is a "New Moses" come to provide the people with a "New Manna" and a "New Passover."  But just as the Israelites rejected the first Moses, so they will reject the second.

Furthermore, just as the Israelites did not recognize the heavenly bread and asked "What is it?" (Heb. "Man-hu?"=manna), so here they cannot recognize Jesus as the bread from heaven, instead asking (excuse my bluntness) "Who the h--l does this guy think he is?  Isn't he a Nazarene 'townee' just like the rest of us?"

Let's not have the same contempt for Christ in the Eucharist.  Yes, it may look like a simple wafer of bread over which Father Joe--whose human foibles we may very well know--has just prayed.  Don't let the "commonness" of the Eucharist be an impediment to faith, as the very "commonness" of Jesus derailed the faith of his contemporaries.  Despite the apparent "ordinariness" of the Eucharist, it is Jesus coming to us.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,
and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets:
They shall all be taught by God.
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
Not that anyone has seen the Father
except the one who is from God;
he has seen the Father.
Here Jesus distinguishes himself from Moses, Elijah, and all the prophets who came before.  They "saw" God, but never directly.  The closest Moses came to a direct vision of God was to see God's "back" (Ex 33:20-23).  Elijah does not see God, but does hear his voice (1 Kings 19:9-18).  But Jesus "has seen the Father."  He is the definitive revealer of God, more so than any of the prophets who came before, or any of the false prophets that have come into human history since.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died;
this is the bread that comes down from heaven
so that one may eat it and not die.
Only one food in human history bestowed eternal life, such that one could "eat it and not die."  This was the fruit of the Tree of Life.  Although it's hard to miss Jesus' allusions to the manna and the Passover in this discourse in John 6, it is easy to overlook this allusion to the Tree of Life.  Jesus is saying here, "I am the fruit of the Tree of Life.  Through me you have access once more to the Garden of God, to eternal life where you will 'walk with the LORD in the cool of the day' for ever."
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world."
Here Jesus' words become increasingly specific and concrete.  At the beginning of his discourse in John 6, Jesus is speaking generally about himself as one who gives life, but by the time we get to the end of the discourse, he has become quite graphic and specific, applying the general truths about himself in a particular way to his presence in the Eucharist.  Here he is quite clear: "the bread that I will give is my flesh (Gk. sarx)."  He does this in two forms: sacramentally in the Upper Room ("This is my body ...") and physically on the cross.

Jesus gives his very self to us as food for our journey through life.  This satisfies our deepest hunger, which is for God.  Unless we feed on this food, we are going to collapse in exhaustion on this journey.  Sadly, we don't always experience the Eucharist as strength and refreshment, in part because we stumble over the "ordinariness"of it and lose our faith that God is really coming to us through this sacrament.   Let's not let that happen this week.

Check out Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History at www.avemariapress.com


Pieter said...

Thanks for the earlier comments! This will be a help. God bless you

John Bergsma said...

You're welcome!