The Mystery of the Mass

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 priestJesus 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.

Which King Do You Follow?

Which King Do You Follow?

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B); July 22, 2012

Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34

Deacon Jim McFadden; Divine Savior Catholic Church


          In order to understand the marvelous words from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, we need to go far back in Israelite history—all the way back to the time of Samuel and Saul, some 400 years before Jeremiah lived and preached.

Recall that following the Exodus Experience c. 1200 b.c., the Israelites settled in the Promised Land.  There,  they were irregularly governed by judges, military and spiritual leaders,  who had an intimacy with God.  They governed on a kind of ad hoc basis: the people would lapse into idolatry, seduced by the Canaanite culture; they were then thrown into a crisis as the people would be oppressed by foreign powers;  after hearing their cries of complaint, God sent  judges to deliver them.  Some of the judges were Samson Gideon, and Deborah.  Read their stories in the book of Judges—it’s fascinating reading.

A key moment occurred when the Israelites felt threatened by the Philistines and, perhaps desiring to consolidate their political and economic power, they approached Samuel, who would be the last judge, and asked him for a king—that they wanted to be like the other nations,  which, in the Bible, is always a bad thing.  Israel is meant to be unlike the other nations—a sign of contradiction and that’s why Samuel, the de facto leader at the time, was so opposed to it.  He knew that God alone should be the true king of Israel.

We should pause and know exactly what’s at stake here.  What Samuel meant is that Israel should be a people who live out of God’s purposes and plans and not their own.  It’s like the path of discipleship: it’s not our will and path, but God’s will and path that we obey and follow.  But, now this principle is writ large at the political level: it should not be the people or their leaders that determine the fate of the people, but the will of God.  It means that Israel should be a people who live in trust and who do not rely upon their own resources.

I would stress that this motif runs throughout the Old Testament; we see it over and over again.  Does Israel trust in the Lord or does Israel trust in their own resources?  By asking for a king, they were virtually saying that they wanted to trust in themselves. They wanted the stability, military security, and status of the other nations and to put their trust in these powers.  They wanted to set their own political, economic, and social agenda and God could come along for the ride. They wanted, in short, what the other nations had.  God wasn’t enough.

Now, here’s the thing:  look in 1 Samuel 8 and you’ll find just what the false allegiance will bring.  This passage contains the most scathing critique of political power that you’ll find in world literature.  Anyone who may be seduced by worldly power, should look at 1 Samuel 8.  What the prophet tells the people is that the very things they are seeking through a king—security, prestige, control, and comfort—will, in fact, be taken from them.

Now, again, this has nothing to say about governance.  Whenever people gather together, they must politically and economically organize themselves to live in relative stability and harmony.   But, what kingship came to mean in the eyes of Samuel and the critics of kingship was a shift of loyalty and allegiance from God to human rulers.

What then followed in Israelite history is exactly what Samuel predicted. That’s why 1 Samuel 8 is an interpretive key to the rest of the Old Testament.  What we see in the history of Israelite kings is a rogues gallery of incompetent, self-absorbed,  and power-hungry rulers.  The Old Testament is very honest and accurate in describing the brutality, cowardice, and mean-spiritedness of the kings of Israel.

Now, with all of that background, we come to the time of Jeremiah around the 6th century b.c.    Jeremiah as prophet was called by God to be God’s voice to God’s people.  Jeremiah chastised them for clinging to their kings, and Jeremiah chastised the ruling kings: “Woe the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord….You have not cared for them.”

And as always,  God does not leave God’s people in their mess.  God through Jeremiah promises that “…I myself will gather the remnant of my flock … and bring them back to their meadow.”    What does that mean?  It doesn’t mean that God would become the mayor of every little town in Israel or that God would become the governor of the people.  Don’t read that God will be micro-managing the affairs of the people.  What it does mean is that Yahweh and his desires would become the governing principles throughout the nation.    Once again God reiterates that God will never abandon God’s people despite their choices.

It’s against this backdrop that we’re invited to read the very brief passage from Mark’s gospel for today.  We learn that the disciples have returned from their journey in which they were instructed by Jesus not to take the comforts and securities of the world.  This journey is very straightforward: they simply follow the promptings of Jesus; they abandon themselves to the only person that is worth that sacrifice.  And, what were they proclaiming as they went?  The Kingdom of God, which means that God’s principles will guide the people.

When the disciples return, Jesus looks up and sees a vast crowd.  Who are they?  It is the Israel that Jeremiah spoke of as being scattered and abandoned without a shepherd.  His heart is full, because now He is there for them.  He is Yahweh in person who is shepherding his people as God had always promised .

What Marks says quite simply is that “he began to teach them many things.” Jesus’ new teaching gives us a new life.    What is that new teaching?  Go to the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, give him the other one… Love your enemy… Lend without expecting a return…Don’t worry about tomorrow: what you’re going to wear or eat. Jesus is challenging us to let go of the securities to which we cling; to let go of the things we think will give us happiness and learn how to trust.

Don’t get me wrong: the Sermon of the Mount does not mean you stop shopping at the super-market or the mall.  That’s not the point.  What’s important is not to rest in those things.  Don’t find your ultimate security and comfort in them, but find it in trusting in the Lord.

That’s the lesson of the new king.  This is the clearing of a new spiritual space; this is a new ordering of things, which Jesus calls precisely the Kingdom of God, which we pray for every time we pray the “Our Father.”

Yahweh, indeed, has come to shepherd his people.  And, so what the people have longed for from ancient times—security, peace, resting in repose—would not come through worldly  kings, which is the whole history of Israel; instead, it would come through Jesus, the Word made flesh, Yahweh incarnate.

So, People of God, where do you find your comfort?  Where do you find your security?  Which king do you follow? That’s the spiritual question.

Internet Noise and the “Sounds of Silence”

Dear Folks,

Attached is a reflection, “Internet Noise and the ‘Sounds of Silence,'”
which reflects upon the challenges of  Internet usage and the
need for Quiet in our lives.

Peace and good will,
Deacon Jim

Internet Noise and the “Sounds of Silence”


            The recent issue of Newsweek ran a very disturbing article “iCrazy: Panic. Depression. Psychosis.  How Connection Addiction is rewiring our brains.”  The author, Tony Dokoupil, asks the question whether tweets, texts, email, and posts are making us crazy.  And, if they are, is there an antidote to this illness.  He doesn’t offer a viable one, but I’d suggest, with thanks to Simon and Garfunkle, the “Sounds of silence” may offer a healing balm.

Dokoupil fears that the Internet bubble is “not just making us dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.  Our digitized minds can scan  like those of drug addicts,   and  normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.”

He cites the following statistics in which Americans are becoming wedded to their electronic machines, which is making us lonelier and even re-shaping the way we think and interact.   To boot, the average teen processes an astounding 3,700 texts a month and sends out 400 texts a month.   Teens stare at a screen eight ours a day; one school days they still log in seven hours of screen time.  And, it’s not just teenagers:  a third of all smartphone users go  online before getting out of bed and the same probably check it before retiring.   Along this line, 80% of vacationers bring their laptops or smartphones on vacation (disclaimer: guilty!).

Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, argues that the computer has become like “electronic cocaine,” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches.  The continual stimulation fosters what Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shadows, about the Web’s effect on cognition, posits that it “fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions.”

This immersion into the electronic virtual world has begun to rewire the brain.  According to Gary Small, the head of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center, Web users display fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes, which look very similar to that of alcoholics and drug addicts.    In others words, many Web users become compulsive in their usage because they’re now wired that way.  Such a state of affairs has resulted in a concomitant upsurge in the rise of OCD and ADHD, the latter has risen 66% in the last decade.  As Stanford psychologist Aboujaoude put it, “There is a cause and effect.”

The social consequences of immoderate Internet usage, which frequently becomes addictive, is sleep deprivation, lack of  exercise, and  the diminishment of healthy face-to-face relationships.  Such dysfunctional living produces pain.  How do we cope with all this angst?  Not every well.  Overwhelmed by the velocity of their lives,  Americans

rely on medication, such as Xanax and other anti-anxiety drugs (which have tripled in use since the late 1990s).  Another non-productive outlet is multi-tasking, which further drains one’s ability to concentrate even when the computer is off.

The conciliar Fathers of Vatican II challenged the Church to know the “signs of the times” (cf. Gaudium et Spes).   Wishing to put the toothpaste back into the tube is not realistic.  We’re not going back to a pre-Internet world, nor should we long for those days because the Internet can be a creative, useful tool that can augment the quality of human life.  The Church can witness a way of living in which a grounded person can integrate Internet usage into their journey of faith by being attuned to the “sounds of silence.”   Silence—going into the Quiet—is important if we’re going to have a viable relationship with God and each other.   If we do that, then the moderate use of the Internet will simply follow as we gravitate towards balanced, simple, harmonious lives.

But, we have to be very intentional because our current condition is not conducive to recollection in which we reflect upon our experience,  come to insight regarding  the latter, and making informed prudential judgments for future action.   Blaise Pascal in his classic Pensees said that the reason there is so much evil in the world is that a person cannot go into the quiet of their study and be still for 15 minutes.  Studies have shown that the typical Catholic spends less than 5 minutes a day in quiet reflection.  Why?  As the Newsweek article suggests, we’re afraid of being cut off, even for an instant, for the torrent of words and images that mark and fill our day.

It really comes down to what is central to our lives.   Is it God, his Word, and his life within the Church or is it our egoic, electronically driven world in which we are the center, life is about our virtual world, and we are in control with the flick of the mouse.   If we reaffirm that God is our Center, then we will rediscover a sense of recollection and inner repose because we want to be still with the One who sustains and loves us every moment of our existence.   Regularly going into the Quiet is not just one among several options,  but is the only way that the Word of God can find a home within our hearts.   As our Holy Father, Pope Benedict said in his Wednesday General Audience (March 7, 2012),  this principle,  “…that without silence one does not hear, does not listen, does not receive a word—applies especially to personal prayer as well as to our liturgies: to facilitate authentic listening., they must also be rich in moments of silence and of non-verbal reception.”

Our Lord Jesus models this interior life.  Anytime he made a crucial decision, he always went away from the crowds and even his disciples, to be with his Father and to listen.   Sacred silence can carve out an interior space in which in the very depths of our being, God can find a home.    His love can take root in our minds and hearts and inspire our hearts to “to move, live, and have our being” in Him.

We can’t fight frenetic activity with a variation of the same.  If we’re going to integrate Internet usage into a healthy spiritual path, we must relearn silence, to go into the Quiet frequently, to be open to listen, which opens us to the other, to the Word of God.   We do so because we know that God is present in the Silence—that he listens and that he cares for us, even amidst confusion and darkness.   We go into the Silence simply because that’s what friends do: they spend time together.  Many centuries ago, St. Francis Xavier put it this way: (Lord),” I do not love you because you can give me paradise or condemn me to hell, but because you are my God.  I love you because You are You.”