18th Sunday of Ordinary Time / Trinity 9.
One of the most tiresome things for me about some of the sects that turn up on the doorstep is that they have no sense of mystery. And science has in some ways done a pretty similar job for the world in general – although it has a mission to understand, and explain, all too often it seems to be explaining away rather than explaining. Some of course, would also point the finger at the new or not so new now, liturgies of the churches, which, they would claim, have brought God down to our level by their use of kitchen sink English, and have taken the mystery out of worship. And yes, it can be a problem. For, after all, Christianity is about mystery – not mystery in the sense of mystification or brain-teasers, but mystery in the sense that in our faith we are confronted with all manner of things which we cannot fully grasp, and yet which have great power to speak to our inward depths and move us.
So what does it mean when we hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel “I am the bread of life”? After all, at the most basic, literal level, Jesus is not bread, he is flesh and bones. Here is mystery indeed. And in typical St John fashion, we are to look not just for one single meaning, but for different layers of meaning – St John is very strong on mystery. At one level, those who view Jesus through the eyes of faith can say “Yes, this is true for me. Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus holds the key to the meaning of life, Jesus teaches me how to live, Jesus nourishes and sustains me in a hundred and one different ways.” That is the testimony of faith.
But at yet another level, this is also a statement about the bread of Eucharist. It does make me cross when people say that they do not believe that Jesus is really present in the bread and wine of Communion, particularly people who claim to sit under the authority of scripture, who yet deny that Jesus meant it when he said at the Last Supper “This is my body, this is my blood.” Where is their sense of mystery, I ask myself. I am not pretending that I understand this mystery, but I am saying I believe it is true, because it is a word of the Lord, and I am frankly incredulous that one, now dead but in his day notorious, Bishop of Birmingham sent a consecrated host for chemical analysis and was triumphant when the result came back and showed no chemical difference from an unconsecrated wafer. This is blasphemy, bishop or no bishop, for he was denying the truth of mystery, and a faith without mystery is not a true and authentic Christianity.
But what of now? After all, we cannot go to Israel and seek out the Lord, and sit at his feet and be nourished by him. No, but through his Spirit, we can have free access to him here and now – we can meet him in his word in the Scriptures, we can meet him in one another, and in the poor and needy of this world, we can meet him in the Eucharist. In these turbulent times, the need to be nourished by Jesus the Bread of Life has never been more pressing. And though it may be yet more mystery, I believe it to be true, that the Lord Jesus comes out of distant Palestine to meet us where we are and feed us. But for that to happen, he requires one thing of us, that we will say yes to him, and make room, no, more than room, the central place in our hearts for him.
Fr. Edward Bryant