Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Importance of Mystagogy-Elisha, Jesus, and Miraculous Food

In paragraph 1075 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it states that “Liturgical catechesis aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ (It is ‘mystagogy.’) by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, form the sign to the signified, from the ‘sacraments’ to the ‘mysteries.’”
In our readings for this week, the Church offers us the opportunity to receive mystagogical instruction and as a result, we have an important opportunity to be further initiated into the mystery of Christ, beginning with the first reading from 2 Kings.

First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44

A man came from Baal-shalishah bringing to Elisha, the man of God, twenty barley loaves made from the firstfruits, and fresh grain in the ear, Elisha said, “Give it to the people to eat.” But his servant object, “How can I set this before a hundred people? Elisha insisted, “Give it to the people to eat.” “For thus says the LORD, They shall eat and there shall be some left over.” And when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the LORD had said.
 In our first reading we read of the miracle performed by the prophet Elisha when he takes twenty barley loaves and is able to feed a group of hundred people. While this immediately will likely trigger in our minds Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, it is important to first examine what it might reveal to us about the role of a prophet.
Beyond the directly verbal aspects of a prophet’s work, there also includes the more semiotic aspects of a prophet’s role, sometimes referred to being a “sign-prophet.” In the case prophets like Jeremiah or Ezekiel, this included symbolic actions that signified God’s coming activity, such as Jeremiah breaking a flask (see Jeremiah 19:10 and following) or Ezekiel digging through the wall carrying his bags for exile (Ezekiel 12:1-16), both signs symbolizing Judah’s exile
In the case of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44,  the potential sign value of the miracle is not immediately apparent, for in context it appears that the miracle serves to provide food for those in need and simultaneously further validate Elisha as a prophet. However, in jumping head to the Gospel reading for this week, we are now able view Elisha’s miracle as a sign hidden in mystery now revealed in Christ.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18

            Response: The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs
Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD, and let you faithful ones bless you. Let them discourse of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might.
R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs
The eyes of all look hopefully to you, and you give them their food in due season; you open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs
The LORD is just in all his ways and holy in all his works. The LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.
R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-6

Brothers and sisters: I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Gospel: John 6:1-15

Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on a mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of the Passover was near. When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

While all four Gospels record Jesus' feeding of the five thousand, it is particularly fitting that the Church puts before us the account found in John’s Gospel, for John’s gospel is written to bring about faith in Jesus by means of “signs” (John 20:30-31). In particular, John's use of signs can be seen in a particularly striking fashion in the first 12 chapters of his gospel, a section that has come to be known as “the book of signs.”
At this point it is natural to ask: why then did John choose to focus on “signs” to illicit faith in Jesus when Jesus himself chastised those who wanted “signs”?  In order to answer to this question correctly, it is important to clarify two different ways of viewing the signs in John’s Gospel, for if one views them simply as ends in themselves, that is, merely captivating displays of supernatural power, then Jesus’ words of condemnation would apply.
However, if one reads the signs in John’s Gospel rightly, that is, following John’s semiotic mystagogy closely, then the signs will lead the reader from the sign to the  signified, from the visible to the invisible (as 1075 of the Catechism suggests above), and ultimately, to faith in Jesus himself.
How does this work in John 6? Jesus' miracle of feeding the five thousand fits within the realm of the action of a sign prophet, for the deeper significance of Jesus’ miracle is able to be comprehended in light of Israel’s past, in particular, in regard to both Moses and Elisha.
As for the symbolic relationship between Elisha and Jesus, like Elisha, Jesus is able to take barley loaves and miraculously feed a large group of people. As for the symbolic relationship between Moses and Jesus, Jesus grants the people a miraculous feeding to address their hunger, just as Moses oversaw the miraculous feeding of Israel through manna from heaven. As a result, what should we conclude on the basis of the sign of the feeding of the five thousand in John’s Gospel?
Looking backward, it appears right to conclude that through the sign of the feeding of the five thousand Jesus is a new prophet like Moses and Elisha, a “sign-prophet” who is able to miraculously feed those in need on behalf of God.
However, there is a further dimension to the feeding of the five thousand in John’s account, one that serves to reveal Jesus as the sign-prophet par excellence, for the sign points forward to an even greater action that God is about to do on behalf of his people.
As Raymond Brown demonstrated nearly 50 years ago in his commentary on John, the feeding of the five thousand and the following bread of life discourse should be read together and not as entirely separate units. If this is correct, then it seems to follow that the bread of life discourse serves as an explanation of the deeper significance of the feeding of the five thousand, namely, Jesus himself is the miraculous bread from heaven who can truly give life to those who receive him.
To further unpack the mystagogy at work here, in Israel’s manna and Elisha’s miraculous food, it is possible to view them not only as important provisions for those in need but mysterious signs that point to Jesus as the bread of life who feeds his people with his own body and blood in the eucharist.


I would like to return to the second reading and the responsorial psalm to apply the insights we gleaned from the first reading and the Gospel. In the  miraculous food of the eucharist, the hand of God feeds us, and in that meal, he answers all our needs. Therefore, our response should be with the Psalmist: Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD, and let you faithful ones bless you. Let them discourse of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might.
Moreover, in receiving the one loaf and one cup in the eucharist, Paul tells the Corinthians that they become one body in Christ (I Cor 10:16-17). As a result, Paul’s admonition in our second reading follows, for we are all called to bear with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit. If we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see the divine mystagogy at work on the pages of Scripture, then our entire lives should be dedicated to maintain the supernatural unity that results from reception of Christ in the eucharist and live as one body through love.


Mark Loftus said...

I think its truly amazing how the readings chosen by the church go so well together, and this is every week. I had forgotten the passage concerning Elisha. This business of the signs being done by prophets and Jesus seven signs in John's gospel is so rich that there is always more to be mined. There follows a way for us who follow Jesus to be bread for ever, and offer up our sufferings as Paul wrote in Colossians 1:23. Also I appreciate the insights you gave us here John.

Mark Loftus

Mark Loftus said...

In my post I meant "bread for others", as Jesus is, not bread for ever.