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Seventeenth Sunday - The Mystery of the Mass
I'm glad all of our readings today are oriented to the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life. First, we hear about Elisha, the man of God, distributing bread among the people. Then, we hear this well-known story from the gospel; Jesus confronts the people who are hungry and tired, and he gives them sustenance. Thomas Aquinas said that the great metaphor for the Eucharist, this greatest gift that Jesus gave the Church, is food for the journey. You know, Baptism received early in life seals us with Jesus' identity, Confirmation intensifies and deepens that identification, Marriage and Holy Orders seal us for our life's mission and vocation... those are rare, once in a lifetime, sacraments. Then there is the Eucharist which, like Reconciliation, is a day-to-day sort of Sacrament. It sustains us and gets us through the journey of life.
I remember that when I was in the seminary I was on a bike trip from Krakow to Zakopane, which is a 70-mile journey. The last 25 miles are nearly all uphill, and then you climb almost a mile to the top of the mountain where there is a beautiful monastery. On a trip like that you've got to be very attentive to your sustenance. If you set out on a trip like that and you haven't fed yourself properly, you won't make it. Therefore, we had some bread, we had candy bars which provide a quick energy boost and, of course, we had bottles and bottles of water. But there was a time on that trip when I hit the wall. It means I stopped. I was completely out of energy. I simply couldn't go on because my body just said: That's it; no more. Well, I had bread and water and various things and then I was able to go on. This story only proves that point that if you don't have the sustenance you cannot go on. So it is with the Eucharist. It's not just a vague symbol. The Eucharist is food for the soul and with that food we can go on in the spiritual life; without it we can't.
With this background in mind, let's turn to our Gospel reading. I suggest that we read it symbolically with the Order of Mass in mind. First, we hear that Jesus went off to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and a large crowd followed him. Think of that when you're gathering for Mass. Maybe watch the people as they come in from all walks of life, both genders, people from different economic and social background, speaking different official languages... it's a symbol of us coming together as one family; a symbol of the coming of God's kingdom.
Notice here that Jesus climbed the hillside. He went up the mountain. Every Mass is a mountain of encounter, a kind of sacred trysting place between divinity and humanity. That's where you are now - you're gathering on the top of Mount Sinai, the top of Mount Tabor and on the top of Mount Calvary. You're at the place of encounter with God. You raise your thoughts to him.
Next we hear that Jesus sat down there with his disciples. In the ancient world sitting down was the attitude of a teacher with his students literally at his feet. So, after we've gathered for the Mass we sit at Jesus' feet and we learn from him. This is the Liturgy of the Word. When you listen to the Scriptures it's not just the lector speaking; it's Christ speaking, especially through the words of the Gospel.
Saint John also tells us that it was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover. For ancient Jews it was the feast of liberation from Egyptian slavery when they ate the lamb which had been sacrificed to God. Now, what's the Mass but the representation of the Cross by which Jesus set us free from sin. It's the celebration of our liberation from the slavery of sin; the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. What it means is that every Mass is a kind of Passover.
Then we hear that Andrew comes forward with the quick suggestion: There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many? Well, think of the Mass again here. At the Mass a tiny amount of bread and wine is brought forward to the altar and it's given to the priest. It's nothing, of course, to feed the infinite hunger of those who have gathered here. It's just one little wafer of bread to give to people. It's not going to satisfy our physical hunger but, because it becomes the Body of Jesus Christ, it will indeed satisfy that deepest spiritual hunger.
Finally, Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready. This, of course, is the Eucharistic formula. It's precisely what to this day, two thousand years later, the priest does at Mass. He takes, breaks, gives thanks, distributes... It's the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
There is one more intriguing detail at the very end of the story. Jesus said to the disciples: Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted. Isn't it exactly what we do at the Eucharist? Once we've distributed the Body of Christ we don't want the fragments go to waste but we gather them up. We gather them up to take to the sick; we gather them up for the tabernacle.
Dear Parishioners. You are what you eat as German philosopher, Feuerbach, said. When we all eat and drink Jesus Christ we are conformed unto him and, therefore, we build up our communion with each other. That is why the Eucharist is so important to us.
My homilies from the previous Sundays are stored in the Archive