As I approach this weekend's Readings, I remember “Babette’s Feast,” a beautiful movie about a french cook in Denmark who wins the lottery and spends her entire earnings to throw a lavish feast for the two old spinsters she works for and all their friends. It's well worth watching if you haven't seen it already! Babette is a French Catholic, her employers are some sort of "free church" Danish Protestants.
The feast that Babette throws for twelve guests at the end of the movie is an obvious and intentional Eucharistic allegory. Like the Eucharist itself, the feast is not fully appreciated, and only one guest realizes how good it really is. The readings for this Sunday (20th of Ordinary Time), which are all closely united by the themes that also run through that movie: eating, wisdom, and thankfulness.
1. Our first reading is taken from Proverbs 9:1-6:
Wisdom has built her house,
she has set up her seven columns;
she has dressed her meat, mixed her wine,
yes, she has spread her table.
She has sent out her maidens; she calls
from the heights out over the city:
“Let whoever is simple turn in here;
To the one who lacks understanding, she says,
Come, eat of my food,
and drink of the wine I have mixed!
Forsake foolishness that you may live;
advance in the way of understanding.”
The Hebrew word for Wisdom is hokhmah, a feminine noun. Therefore, in this passage wisdom is personified as a woman. This passage (Prov 9:1-6) comes near the end of the long introduction to the book of Proverbs (chs. 1-9), and the picture of God’s wisdom as a woman inviting everyone to a feast is also an invitation to “feast” on God’s wisdom by reading the Book of Proverbs. The “house” that wisdom has built is also the Book of Proverbs, and the “seven columns” of the house probably refer–in one sense–to the seven sections of the main body of the book: The Proverbs of Solomon I (10:1-22:16), the Proverbs of the Wise I (22:17-24:22), the Proverbs of the Wise II (24:23-34), the Proverbs of Solomon II (25:1-29:27), the Proverbs of Agur (30:1-14), the Numerical Proverbs (30:15-33), and the Proverbs of Lemuel (31:1-9). The Prologue (chs. 1-9) and Epilogue (31:10-31) of the Book of Proverbs are strongly united by the theme of wisdom as the ideal wife.
One of the primary expressions of wisdom emphasized by the Book of Proverbs is sexual fidelity to one’s spouse and the avoidance of sexual promiscuity. Today’s reading comes at the end of a long introduction to the book (chs. 1-9) during which the sacred author has warned the reader, whom he calls his “son,” again and again to avoid the “loose woman” and to stay faithful to one’s own wife.
This message was counter-cultural in the time Proverbs was written, and it remains counter-cultural today. Even though promiscuous sexuality spreads disease, breaks hearts, produces “unwanted” children who are typically killed in the womb, destroys marriages, and generally undermines human happiness and flourishing for the sake of momentary pleasure, nonetheless our entertainment industry, news media, schools, and government are intent on promoting and facilitating it. Sexual self-control, the virtue of chastity, is not the most important virtue, yet it is absolutely necessary to grow in holiness and closer to God. In ancient times as well as today, it is a message that parents have to strongly impress upon their children, starting in adolescence–because every other element of society is going to tell them the opposite.
The idea of a meal that bestows wisdom does not appear here in Proverbs for the first time in Scripture. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil bore fruit that bestowed a certain kind of “wisdom.” Some scholars believe the phrase “Good and Evil” is a merismus, a literary device meaning “everything from Good to Evil” that is, “everything from A to Z,” in other words, omniscience. The way the snake advertises the tree and its fruit to Eve, he makes it sound like they will attain God-like knowledge, or omniscience, from eating the fruit. Of course, that didn’t happen.
But now in Proverbs, God’s wisdom is presented as a noble and elegant woman who invites everyone to a feast that bestows both wisdom and life–almost, as it were, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life combined. In the context of Proverbs, the image of the feast and eating is simply a metaphor for actually reading, studying, and learning the principles expressed in the Book. However, it is also a prophetic image, a foreshadowing of a meal that God would one day provide which would bestow wisdom and life on his people.
2. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7:
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 poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Psalm 34 is the same psalm we used as the responsorial last week. It is a “thanksgiving,” or in Hebrew, a todah psalm. It was written to accompany the offering of the sacrifice of thanksgiving, the todah. Here is a little background on this form of sacrifice:
The basic legislation for the todah sacrifice is laid out in Leviticus 7:11-15:
Lev. 7:11 “And this is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings which one may offer to the LORD. 12 If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the thank offering unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of fine flour well mixed with oil. 13 With the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving he shall bring his offering with cakes of leavened bread. 14 And of such he shall offer one cake from each offering, as an offering to the LORD; it shall belong to the priest who throws the blood of the peace offerings. 15 And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten on the day of his offering; he shall not leave any of it until the morning.
Several unique features of the todah sacrifice should be noted:
(1) unlike the burnt, sin, or guilt offerings, the todah was never offered because of sin, and was never obligatory on the offerer. It did not express notions of atonement, reparation, mortification, or penitence for the sin or unworthiness of the worshiper. Instead, it expressed pure gratitude and joy for a gratuitous act of deliverance bestowed on the worshiper by the LORD.
(2) Large amounts of choice bread, including leavened bread, were offered together with the todah, whereas bread was not offered with most other forms of sacrifice, and leavened bread never.
(3) The entire sacrificial animal was consumed by the worshiper and his entourage before the following sunrise; whereas in other forms of sacrifice, the animals was wholly burned (the burnt or whole offering) or consumed by the priests (the sin and guilt offerings).
It follows that the todah sacrifice was a joyous event and the occasion for a feast. Since the ritual required the consumption of the entire sacrificial animal within a limited time, the worshiper brought family and friends with him for the celebration, and these appear to be the addressees for the testimonial portions of the todah psalms. The poor, too, may have been invited to help consume the feast (Ps 34:2; 22:26). The mood and spirituality of the todah were thus quite distinct from other liturgical rituals, and some psalms, in fact, assert the superiority of worshiping God through the todah:
Psalm 50:7 “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. 8 I do not reprove you for your sacrifices; your burnt offerings are continually before me. 9 I will accept no bull from your house, nor he-goat from your folds. 10 For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. 11 I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. 12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world and all that is in it is mine. 13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? 14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High; 15 and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
In this famous passage, the psalmist contrasts a spirituality based on the burnt offering—which was entirely consumed in smoke as an offering to God, and lent itself to being understood as “food” or “payment” to God—with a spirituality based on todah, in which the Israelite learned to live according to a pattern of dependence on God and exuberant expression of gratitude for his salvation. The command “offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (v. 14) does not refer to the substitution of songs or verbal expressions of praise and thanksgiving for a liturgical animal sacrifice, but rather refers to the todah, in which an animal was ritually slaughtered, but then consumed in celebration by the worshipers. Thus Psalm 50 asserts the superiority of the todah to other forms of sacrifice.
In Jewish tradition, the Passover came to be classified as falling within the category of the todah sacrifices, because it (1) was not offered in reparation for sin, (2) had to be eaten before dawn, (3) was eaten with bread, and (4) was offered in thanksgiving for a great act of deliverance (the Exodus). Thus, the Passover and the todah concept are closely linked. In fact, near the end of the Passover liturgy, a set of todah psalms was recited as a hymn known as the Hallel or "praise!" (Pss 113-118).
In this time of the Church year, we are being shown various Old Testament types of the Eucharist. The First Reading gave us one: the feast of wisdom; but if we know the background, we see that the Psalm is also providing us another, the ancient todah sacrifice.
3. Our second reading is Eph 5:15-20:
Brothers and sisters:
Watch carefully how you live,
not as foolish persons but as wise,
making the most of the opportunity,
because the days are evil.
Therefore, do not continue in ignorance,
but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.
And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,
giving thanks always and for everything
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.
Although this passage from Ephesians was not chosen intentionally to match the first reading and the Gospel, yet it is remarkable the similarity of themes that we can observe. We have the image of drinking wine, also present from the first reading, but here applied to the Spirit. And connected with the psalm, Paul instructs us to “address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything…” This strongly evokes the image of David, who was remembered for spending his time playing on the liar and inventing new songs to sing in worship, especially songs of thanksgiving (todah). St. Paul is encouraging Christians to be “little Davids”–David, after all, was also filled with the Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13).
We ought not to pass over St. Paul’s exhortation to “give thanks always and for everything” too quickly. A spirituality of gratitude and thanksgiving is essential to the Christian life. There can be a tendency for faithful Catholics to fall into a mode of constant criticism and bemoaning, the “world is going to hell in a handbasket” mentality. There is much evil in the world, to be sure, but an attitude of dourness and pessimism wins no converts and quenches the Spirit. As Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium:
An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that “delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ”. (EvG §10)
We must learn to transcend our present circumstances, and to suffer joyfully. When Peter and John were unjustly brought to court and later beaten, they “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the name.” Its only that paradoxical joy-in-suffering that can change our world and cause the Church to grow once more.
4. Our Gospel is Jn 6:51-58:
Jesus said to the crowds:
“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.”The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
In this passage, Jesus moves from talking about himself in a general way as the “Bread of Life” to making specific application to the gift of Himself in the Eucharist.
The language gets increasingly concrete and specific. In verse 53, Jesus introduces the idea of “drinking his blood”, which has no basis in the story of the manna (Exodus 16) that has dominated the discussion to this point. The only reason for introducing this image of “blood drinking” is that Jesus is moving the discussion toward the gift of his body and blood in the Eucharist.
Jesus also begins to use specific and graphic language. Starting in verse 54 (“Whoever eats my flesh …”), Jesus switches from the general word for “eat” (Gk. phago) to the word for “chew” (Gk. trogo). It is literally, “Unless you chew my flesh and drink my blood …” The language is very strong, even grotesque, especially for the crowds who do not know how these words would be fulfilled.
We can see that Jesus is not trying to win over the people by giving them easy words and attractive promises; he is testing their faith, seeing if they will trust him enough to accept a “hard teaching.” Most of them will not accept it, but Jesus knew that from the beginning–this crowd only came to have their bellies filled, and Jesus pointed that out several verses earlier. This crowd, interested only in physical satisfaction, has become only a distraction from Jesus ministry.
“Whoever eats this bread will live forever …” Jesus offers his body as a kind of new fruit of the Tree of Life, as well as a new Feast of Wisdom from which one can eat and live. The Eucharist is a Feast of Wisdom because it is a Feast of Love. Love is the highest wisdom, and surpasses wisdom (see 1 Corinthians 13). In the Eucharist, our Lord sets us the example of giving up his life for us, his friends. This is the greatest love, not to cling to our life but to give it in love. While we still cling to our life, we cannot have any joy in the midst of suffering. It is only in becoming Eucharistic people, and freely giving our lives, that we begin to experience the freedom, the joy, and the thanksgiving that befits people who know they are children of God!