The Bread of Life
In this beautiful homily for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Father Hanly gives the most wonderful talk on The Bread of Life.
First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 34:2-3, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15
Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20
Gospel: John 6:51-58
“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.”
When Jesus said these words, many of his disciples left him. And yet we can understand maybe a little bit better than those who heard these words for the first time. Because it seemed like a terrible thing to take them literally. And, of course, they were not to be taken literally.
Today, we know the meaning of these words and we have come to love them.
I think I have told this story before, but I will tell it again. When my mother was sitting in the car with my father and my two sisters, and we were coming home from church, she had so many things that she used to criticise about our pastor in the little village church that we belonged to at the time. And rightfully so. He wouldn’t say those words today. But he would bring up things and my mother would get a little angry.
And so, on the way home, she would say, “Why can’t Father…” And “How come he talks like this?” And, finally, my father said to her, “Sarah Jane, I don’t know why you go to church at all if you are always going to criticise Father’s sermon.”
And she looked at my father, and she looked at us, and she said, “I go for the bread.”
Well, that stopped everything. “I go for the bread.” “I am the bread of life.” And that’s why she went to Mass on Sunday, even if Father was giving the sermons.
“I am the bread of life.” What does he mean by that?
Well, he certainly doesn’t mean it to be taken literally. But he does mean to take it seriously. Because what he is saying is something that is quite extraordinary.
We think of great teachers. We think of Jesus, sitting on the Mount of the Beatitudes and telling the people, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who forgive. Blessed are those who are pure of heart, single minded in following the kingdom.”
And he’s preaching as everybody preaches, and speaks as every preacher speaks, and he hopes, and he does, turn the hearts of the people. But there is only one thing missing. He is on the outside and he is talking to people. And we hope, and he hopes, probably, that they take hold of his words and bring them in to their hearts.
But, for Jesus, any preacher can do that. God does not become man and come down from heaven just to do this.
There’s more and something much more important. When we just use words to explain important things in our lives, the words seem a bit hollow, and they seem…they have to be written down or they are forgotten.
Jesus is not talking about words. Jesus is talking about himself, and how he will be with us, and how he will live with us, and how we will come to realise that it is not just in words that we serve, but it is in deeds.
Remember at the Last Supper, he took the bread, and he blessed it, and he gave it to his disciples after breaking it, and he said to them, “This is my body.”
He didn’t mean body in the sense that we do. For the Hebrew people, if someone said, “This is my body,” they meant “This is myself.”
And he said, “Take it and eat. This is my body.”
And then he took the chalice and, of course, the people in the setting of the Last Supper were all Jews and they knew what these symbols meant. And so he took the chalice and they thought…
Usually in the Old Testament they talk of the bitterness of the chalice. “I must drink this cup.” Jesus said to his disciples, “Can you drink this cup?” And the brothers James and John looked at their mother. And Jesus said, “You will drink this cup. And you will drink it not too long from now.”
To drink the bitterness of the cup means to undergo sacrifice and pain.
And, of course, what he was drinking was the wine. And the wine for the Jew, the wine was the source of life.
And so when he took it and said, “Take this and drink. This is my blood poured out for you tomorrow on the cross, poured out for you that you might live.”
And then he said, “Whenever you do these things, you do them in my memory.”
Not to remember me as we would remember stuff that we put in a drawer and you take it out every Christmas.
“Remember me. Take me with you where you go.”
And now what is he saying? He is saying… I’ll give an example.
Many years ago, I was in Chinatown, New York, as the pastor there, and my sister Ann, my little sister, was in India with her husband, and they were in the foreign service. And she fell down one of the mountains, fell off a donkey or a horse and fell down one of the mountains. And I was in Chinatown, New York, and they called me from the hospital, the army hospital in Washington, and they said, “Your sister is here and she fell down a mountain and we had to evacuate her.”
And so I got the next plane and I was at her side in about an hour, really. And I walked into the room, and it was very dark, and she was, this person was, at the end of it, and she was laying there. And I couldn’t recognise her, she was all bandaged, she had severe damage to her head. And, I must say, I was overcome. And when I’m overcome, I talk too much, you know.
So I went over to her, and I started talking to her, and I said, “Ann, I’m here. It’s ok, I’m here,” and this and that and all the rest.
And I could see one eye. And she opens one eye and she says to me, “Will you just shut up and take my hand.”
Think of that, now. “Will you just shut up and take my hand.” She didn’t want to hear anything wonderful, a sermon or words of comfort. She wanted the presence of her brother, and the presence of her family, and the presence of everybody she cared for and loved.
Now that’s what Jesus, “When you take that bread…” You see? That is what he’s looking for.
It’s not a matter of learning the doctrine. It’s not a matter of understanding transubstantiation. It’s a matter of knowing that “When you take this bread, you take me, and you take an appreciation for the fact that I have poured out my blood for you.”
And that’s why we come together and we sing the songs like, “Amazing Grace! How sweet it is! I once was lost, but now I’m found.”
We say we walk in the grace of God. The grace of God means the presence of God. When someone graces us, it means we are gracing them with our presence.
This is the meaning of Amazing Grace. It is the presence of God, the presence of Jesus, the presence of the Lord within our lives, within our hearts.
But the real presence, incomparable, cannot compare it to any other relationship, for only the son of God could allow us to experience, not the divinity of God, but the humanity of the Son of God, that we might know that he is one with us in every way. One with us, not only in love, but one with us in the lives we lead, for he has walked that walk, and he has been where we are afraid to go, and he turns back to us and says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.”
And this is the presence. We call it the real presence. But we call it something else, and it’s even a better meaning to what Jesus has done and what he is promising, because, “If you take this bread and drink this cup, you do have me, as I was then, and as I am now, the Risen Lord, not only walking with you on the outside, but part of your inner core.”
You have heard that expression of a proud father about his son. He will say, “He’s flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” It means there is nothing between us, the great intimacy of he, my son, and the son to his father. That is the kind of intimacy.
But the other word that we use: we call it “Holy Communion.” Holy Communion. When you say, “Has your child received the sacraments yet?” You’ll say, “You mean Holy Communion?” You don’t say, “Has he taken the bread? Has he taken the wine? Has he done this?” Holy Communion. And this is the word that we all say to receive Holy Communion. “Come up now and receive Holy Communion.”
But we never think of what it means.
It means a total communion with God himself through Jesus. And a communion, each of us with each other. A communion that is to last for all eternity. And that is the gift that Jesus gives.
It seems to me, that when we receive Holy Communion, we sometimes receive it for ourselves, and we’re very happy that Jesus comes to us in this way.
I remember, when I was a kid, I was afraid to receive Holy Communion, because the sister said, “If that bread sticks to the top of your palate, then you are really in trouble. And don’t open your mouth too big,” and all the rest of it.
Well, by that time, I had no idea what I was doing, but later I began to understand what communion meant.
And then one priest stood up one day and he said, “Yes, you people go to Holy Communion all the time, but you do not realise that you are supposed to be in communion with each other, and forgive each other. And you’re supposed to be in communion with the people outside, especially the hungry people, and you’re supposed to feed them, because Jesus is with you, and the things that he did, you must do now.
“It is you who will feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. It is you who will clothe the naked and ransom the captive. It will be you who visit the lonely.
“This is you. But it’s not you. Because you are in communion with Jesus, and it is he who is working through you and there is nothing you can do about it.”
I’m going to read the last part, if I can find it. Yes. Holy Communion. Think of this now. These are words of Mother Theresa, lovely Mother Theresa.
“Many today are starving for ordinary bread.
But there is another kind of hunger-
the hunger to be wanted, the hunger to be loved, the hunger to be recognised.
Nakedness too is not just the want of clothes,
but also about the loss of dignity, purity and self-respect.
And homelessness is not just want of a house;
there is the homelessness of being rejected,
of being unwanted in a throwaway society.
The biggest disease in the world today
is the feeling of being unwanted and uncared for.
And the greatest evil in the world is lack of love,
the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbour.
Lord, warm our cold hearts with your grace,
so that we your disciples may produce the fruits of love.”
“He who eats my bread and drinks my blood will have life everlasting.”