The Mystery of the Mass
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B); July 29, 2012
2 Kings 4:42-44; Ps 145; Eph 4:1-6; Jn 6:1-15
Deacon Jim McFadden; Divine Savior C.C. & Folsom Prison
The sixth chapter of John’s gospel, from which we’ll be reading for the next several weeks, is an on-going meditation on the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist. We re-read John’s sixth chapter every third summer in the liturgical year Why this chapter? Why does the Church focus so carefully on it? John’s gospel does not have a narrative of Jesus consecrating the Bread or sharing the cup, which we find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But what this chapter does have is a very defined Eucharistic theology albeit in symbolic form. I’d like to invite us during these hot summer days, to spend time reflecting on this chapter of John. Maybe read it with your family; maybe read it in private prayer; maybe do a lectio divina in which you read it for understanding and applying it to your lives.
Chapter Six begins in the context of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes: First, we hear this: “After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee (of Tiberius). (And) a large crowd followed him. …” (Jn 6:1). This is a motif one sees throughout the gospels: people are attracted to Jesus! The crowds were simply captivated by him; they wanted to be close to him. We saw it last week in Jesus as the Good Shepherd calling Israel back. We hear it in Mark’s gospel in which people came at him from all sides. There’s something magnetic about Jesus. The line from the liturgy reflects this attraction: “Age to age you gather a people to yourself so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name.” This liturgical passage captures the magnetic attractiveness of Jesus because we are here today! Why else would we be here if not to be with Jesus and give glory to the triune God?
The gathering at Mass, the action by which we come together as a community, not a group of autonomous individuals, is this ongoing attractiveness of Jesus undiminished through the ages down to the present day. Think of that when you gather for Mass. Watch the people as they come in from all walks of life: both genders, different economic strata. Know that we are a symbol of a coming together of the Kingdom of God.
Then we hear, “Jesus went up on the mountain….” (v. 3a). This is an important symbol because ‘mountain’ is the place of encounter with God: Abraham binds Isaac on the top of Mount Mariah, Moses receives the Law on Mount Sinai, Elijah faces down the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, Isaiah images God’s eschatological mountain, Jesus gives his New Law on a mountain and is transfigured on Mount Tabor. Why?
The ‘mountain’ symbolizes the aspiration of the human spirit upward and the condensation of the divine Spirit downward. It signifies a meeting of divinity and humanity; a meeting of divine and human freedom in the great God-drama.
Every Mass is a mountain encounter. Perhaps we should call our parish Mount Divine Savior because every Mass is a sacred meeting place of divinity and humanity. When we gather for Mass, we’re gathering at the top of Mount Tabor, of Mount Sinai, the top of the Mount where Jesus gave us the Beatitudes. We become a place of a loving encounter with God.
Then we hear that “he sat down with his disciples” (v. 3b). In the ancient world, sitting down was the posture of the teacher, which is kind of peculiar to us. We think of a teacher standing at a podium or giving a PowerPoint presentation or a lecture. But, in the ancient world, sitting was the accepted position of the teacher with his students literally at his feet. So, it’s fitting that Jesus sits with his disciples; the latter is simply a word for ‘learner.’
After we’ve gathered for the Mass, drawn by the attractive power of Jesus, what do we do? Just this: we sit at his feet and we learn from him, which is the Liturgy of the Word. When we listen to the readings, especially to the gospel, we’re having a “teaching moment.” It’s not just the lector, deacon, or priest speaking, it is Christ speaking. It is the Word that has invited you into intimacy with him, attracted you, and now you sit down at his feet while he teaches you through the words of the gospel and, if it is good, in the words of the homilist. We call this the Liturgy of the Word, and it is symbolized here with the disciples sitting at the feet of Jesus on the holy mountain.
Then we hear, “The Jewish feast of Passover was near” (v. 4). During Passover, the Hebrews remembered the Exodus from Egypt, they signaled their solidarity as a people with the sharing of the sacred meal, and they ate the lamb that had been sacrificed to Yahweh.
What’s the Mass but the re-presentation of the Cross by which Christ set us free from sin? The Mass is a recapitulation of Exodus—it’s a liberation from the slavery of sin and death.
What is the Mass but the sacred meal which defines us as Christ’s people? That’s why we are essentially a Eucharistic people.
What is the Mass but the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?
I think all of that is packed into that phrase when John says the feast of Passover was near. What he means is that every Mass is a kind of Passover and sums up these three great themes.
Then we hear that “Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him” (v. 5a) and that they were hungry. They symbolize Israel, which we reflected upon last week; but, even more broadly, they symbolize the entire human race across space and time. The whole human race which is hungry not just for physical food but, above all, hungry for life–hungry for purpose, for meaning, for joy. Brothers and sisters, put yourself into that crowd; that’s the idea: we’re all in that crowd coming to Jesus and hungering for purpose, life, meaning, and joy.
When Jesus tests Philip, he protests that they have so few food for such a large crowd. But, then Andrew comes forward with the idea of a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish. Nothing, of course, for so many, but Jesus says give them to me.
Think of the Mass. A tiny amount of bread and wine is brought to the altar and given to the priest. Jesus asks for the loaves and fishes and the priest is symbolically saying “give them to me.” It’s only a small wafer of bread which isn’t going to satisfy our physical hunger, but what will it satisfy? It will assuage our deep spiritual hunger.
Again, we go back to the Gospel: “Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining…” (v. 11a). This, of course, is a Eucharistic formula, familiar already to the early Church: He took, he broke, he gave thanks, and he distributed, and some 2000 years later, this is precisely what the priest does at Mass. At the liturgy, which the Church calls Eucharist, which is just another word for ‘thanksgiving,’ the priest takes, breaks, gives thanks, and distributes.”
And, then we hear the wonderful statement, “When they had their fill…” (v. 12a). At the literal level they were filled up on the loaves and fishes, but there’s a much more evocative symbolic meaning: this is humanity finally being satisfied! We’ve tried a myriad number of ways to satisfy the deep longing within us, but nothing will finally fill it except God. Only the Eucharist, which is what?—the substantial presence of Jesus can ever satisfy our souls. Let us come to Christ; let us give him that little that we have, and he will multiply it so that we will be fed.
And, then we have the final tidbit, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted” (v. 12b). Isn’t this exactly what we do at the Eucharist? Once we distribute the Body of Christ, we don’t let the fragments go to waste, but we gather them up, which was the practice of the early Church. We gather them up to take to the sick, we gather them for the Tabernacle.
Last detail: “So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets…” (v. 13b). What is that but the twelve tribes of Israel? Jesus came to gather them and through them to gather the world. The Eucharist is the food and drink of the New Kingdom.
The crowd on the hillside were now magnetically attracted to Jesus; they were taught by Jesus, they were fed by Jesus; and they become the new nation. Well, that’s what happens at every Mass. We become the new gathered, fed, and satisfied People of God.
Once again I encourage you to walk through this Sixth Chapter of John over the next several weeks and dip deeply into this meaningful passage and this beautiful Gospel.