The Banquet of Wisdom, Flesh and Blood, Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), August 20, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Saint Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
20th Sunday in OT, Year B
August 20, 2006
Prov9:1-6; Eph5:15-20; Jn 6:51-58

1) Two-thousand years ago the disciples frequently used to ask Jesus what heaven was like and Jesus would often reply to them in the form of parables, analogies that would allow them to understand certain aspects of an experience that is sure to exceed all human imagination. One of the images to which he repeatedly returned was the that of a banquet: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (Mt 22:2). A banquet — particularly a wedding banquet, which would last for eight days amidst the great joy of the bride and groom and their families — was a great example of a gift given to others and of a celebration. Hence it was a fitting image for heaven, for the gift that heaven is. God the Father is preparing a never-ending banquet for his Son and the saints and he has invited us to strive for sanctity so that we might come and rejoice with him forever in it.

2) In today’s readings, that same Father invites us, so to speak, to the engagement party, an extraordinary banquet in which again his Son is the gift of honor and His bride, the Church — us — are the guests of honor. It’s a banquet in which there are two extraordinary courses. The first course is described in the reading from the Book of Proverbs and the second in today’s Gospel. This banquet, the Mass in which you’re now participating, is the greatest event that has ever happened in the history of the world and the greatest invitation you’ve ever received. But since it is offered so frequently, we can too often take it for granted. Today, with the help of these readings, we will stop to reflect on just what we do each week, so that we might not only receive the graces God wishes to give us today at this banquet, but also so that he might change and inspire us to make this experience by far the most important one of our week, of our day, of our whole lives.

3) In the first reading from the Book of Proverbs, God, who is Wisdom personified, says that he has prepared a banquet and sends out his servants to invite anyone who is “simple” and “lacks understanding” to “turn in here” and “come and eat.” God offers at this banquet the nourishment of HIS WISDOM in his word. He wishes to feed us in abundance through the readings of Sacred Scripture proclaimed live in the Mass. But in order to profit from this nourishment, we first have to be hungry. We need to be “simple” and humble enough to recognize that we “lack understanding,” that we don’t have all the answers, that we need God to teach and feed us. Today many people fill their minds with junk food rather than wisdom, and, as a result, either see no need to respond to God’s invitation to the banquet or if they do, come without an appetite and leave for the most part unchanged. We can spend more time reading People Magazine than the Bible. We can focus our attention more on whether Vince and Jen will get married, or whether Josh Becket will stop giving up homeruns, or whether the Republicans or Democrats will prevail in the November elections, than we do on Jesus Christ. We can think we’re wise if we have fancy letters after our name, or understand scientific or intellectual articles, or use fancy French words in conversation, or have strong and footnoted opinions. But the truly wise person, Proverbs tells us today, is the one who first, like Socrates, knows how much he or she does not know, and then, second, comes to comes to receive instruction from God, his word and from the Church he founded. The wise person is the one who, like Martha’s sister Mary, recognizes that “only one thing is necessary” and does whatever it takes, sacrifices whatever one must, to obtain it. That one necessary thing is God.

4) In today’s second reading, St. Paul describes further how the truly wise person behaves. “Be careful then how you live,” he says, “not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” St. Paul says several things here that we should flesh out:

a. The wise person, he says, recognizes that time on earth is a precious gift to learn how to love, and that we should use it well. We shouldn’t waste it getting plastered or high, on passing pleasures or selfish pursuits, but spend it seeking the will of the Lord, understanding it and putting it into practice. How we look on our time and how we invest it is the first sign of whether we’re seeking to be wise according to God’s standards or according to the world’s.

b. The truly wise person, St. Paul continues, is filled with the Holy Spirit. While anyone can say he or she “feels” filled by the Holy Spirit and his gift of wisdom, St. Paul says gives us two ways to verify it. They might not be the only ways, but they are real indications.

i. The first way we see if we are filled with the Spirit, St. Paul tells us, is by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among ourselves.” There are many today who would think nothing about singing the lyrics of the popular songs of their generation — be it Sinatra or Elvis, the Beatles or Springsteen, Madonna or Mariah, Justin, Shakira or Chris Brown — but who are too embarrassed to sing psalms and hymns in Church. St. Paul would say that those who don’t sing in Church are foolish, caring much more it seems about what people around them might think than what God thinks. God gave us our voices and he wants us to use them. None of us, no matter how bad we think our voice is, would hesitate to sing happy birthday to our two-year-old child, because we love the child and know that for the child it doesn’t matter if we sing like Neil Diamond or Barbara Streisand, but only that we love them enough to sing. It’s the same way with God. If we love him, we know that it matters less whether we can sing angelically like our cantors or choirs, but rather that we do the best we can. It’s really a blessing today that we don’t have our famous organ accompanying us, because it “forces us” to use the “pipes” God has given us to fill this sacred temple with sound as our organ normally does. And all of us can verify readily whether we are doing so or not! St. Paul, inspired by God, when he wrote that the truly wise aren’t embarrassed to sing to the Lord, that they sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and make melody to God in our hearts, wanted to be describing all of us at Mass today.

ii. The second way, St. Paul tells us, to verify if we are wise and filled with the Holy Spirit is by whether we “give thanks to God at all times and in everything.” The wise person gives thanks to God even when everything seems to the foolish to be going poorly, when we’re suffering, when we’re mourning, when we’re in great trials. In the early Church, it made no sense to the worldly-wise Roman magistrates why so many Christians — from young virgin girls like Agnes or Cecilia to eighty-six year olds like Polycarp — would think nothing of suffering tremendous tortures and hideous deaths instead of merely spitting on a crucifix, or burning incense in front of the statue of a pagan god, or saying a phrase that blasphemed Christ. It made no human sense that the martyrs would rejoice in their suffering, singing hymns as they were being burned or flayed alive or ripped apart by animals or stretched out upon a rack. But they were wise and the others, in the final analysis, were the most foolish of all, because the martyrs knew they were about to pass to the eternal banquet and that their witness and their blood would spread the Gospel even more than a lifetime of words. Similarly, no matter what we’re experiencing, whether adverse or propitious, it is under the watchful gaze of our omnipotent and all-loving Father — and hence, if we’re wise, we will thank him because “everything works out for the good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28 ), no matter what the fools around us might say.

5) The one area where the contrast between worldly wisdom and true wisdom is most stark is in the approach to the wondrous sacrament of the Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. We are now in the fourth week of Jesus’ five-week course on his body and blood that he gives us every three years. In today’s Gospel, Jesus couldn’t be more blunt when he said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” To his listeners, it must have sounded initially like Jesus had lost his mind. He seemed to be speaking about cannibalism. To a Jew who couldn’t even touch blood without becoming ritually impure, to drink somebody’s blood would be even more repulsive than to a gentile. No wonder why the Jews disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” No wonder why even his disciples said, “This teaching is hard; who can accept it?”

6) But Jesus didn’t back off. He couldn’t back off, because what he was saying was the truth. When these disciples, for whom Jesus had worked so hard over the past couple of years to draw toward the truth, started to leave him because of the scandal of the words, Jesus didn’t run after them and say, “You misunderstood me; I was really talking only symbolically.” He didn’t say, “Okay, I’ll compromise. I’ll let you set the terms. If you don’t want to, you won’t have to consume my body and blood. I’ll find some other way for you to have life within you and enter eternal life.” No, he knew that these disciples whom he loved had heard him well, but they were unwilling to accept the reality he was describing. They were unwilling to believe. Rather than watering down this truth to try to get them back, Jesus instead turned to the Twelve, those closest to him, and said, “Do you also wish to go away?” What a shockingly direct question! We’ll have a chance next week to ponder the depth of St. Peter’s response, but in short, he stood up and said, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The words of Jesus probably didn’t make any more sense to Peter than they did to the others who had just abandoned Jesus because of his teaching on the Eucharist; the words would only make sense one year later when during the Last Supper, the Lord took bread and changed it into his body and took wine and changed it into his blood and allowed his apostles for the first time to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Peter, however, even before the Last Supper, trusted in Jesus and therefore believed in what he said, even if it exceeded his capacity for comprehension. Real wisdom means basing our lives on God and on what God says and does, even if all the worldly gurus, even if our senses, try to say otherwise. That is what real wisdom means!

7) Therefore, if you and I are wise, we will base our life on the reality of Jesus’ words that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we have no life within us, that without receiving the Eucharist worthily we are nothing more than walking corpses. We believe this and live this even though many in the world will think we’re out of minds, that were idolaters, “bread worshippers,” idiots who believe that a little piece of unleavened bread not only is holy but is GOD! We do this even though some worldly people in the Church who are nominally Catholic think we’re “fanatics,” because we take Jesus’ literal words literally. To base our lives on the wisdom of God, who gave us the Eucharist to be the source and summit of our life, to be a source of nourishment far more important than material food, to be our very life and passport to eternal life, implies several wise practices:

a. First, we would never voluntarily miss a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation, like we had on Tuesday (the solemnity of Our Lady’s Assumption). We would never say that anything else would be more important for us on the Lord’s day than to make it a day of the Lord, by coming with others to listen to him and receive worthily the food of eternal life. There are, of course, times when we’re too ill to do anything, including to come to Mass, or when there’s so much snow on the ground that we couldn’t leave the house even if we needed to rush to the hospital. But our reaction, if we truly recognize the gift of the Mass, would be a profound regret that we couldn’t make it and then to make a deep spiritual communion with Christ through a television Mass or personal prayer. What we’d never do, if we’re truly wise, is voluntarily put something else more important than Mass, as some Catholics do when, for example, they’re on vacation — as if the way to happiness in the heavenly kingdom would pass through Disney’s Magic Kingdom instead of the Mass and the way Jesus described.

b. Next, if we’re wise, we’ll do what we can to attend Mass during the week, because, even though it’s not a sin to miss daily Mass, is there anything more important that we can do on a Tuesday or a Saturday morning than to be fed by God with the gift of his body and blood? If we think that it’s really more important to sleep late, or to go to work early, or to do any of several other noble and honest activities, it doesn’t mean that we’re bad people or even sinning; it just means that we’re very likely putting more weight on worldly wisdom than Christ’s wisdom. And looking at our lives from the view of eternity, do we think that’s a good choice?

c. Third, we will try to make it to Eucharistic adoration and bring those we love to it. If Pope Benedict were willing to come to New Bedford to speak to you about your life, to help you with your family and the choices you face, to teach you more about God and help you to respond with love, would you meet him? I think all of us would. Well, Benedict’s boss, Jesus Christ, is here in our city and not only wants to meet with you, but can do so much more for you than Pope Benedict or anyone else could, but we have to take advantage of, rather than take for granted, his presence. At the downtown chapel, there is Eucharistic adoration 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we can visit him at any time. If we’re wise, we’ll do so and do so frequently.

d. Next, we’ll show we understand Whom we meet in the Eucharist by how we dress. If someone showed up to a state dinner at the White House or to a best friend’s wedding in improper attire, it would be evidence either that the person is ill-educated and unwise or that the person just doesn’t respect the president or his friends. In a similar way, we need to dress up for Mass in such a way that we remind ourselves and everyone else Who it is that we hope to meet and receive. There are, of course, occasions when we may not have time to head home and to change, and so we need to arrive at Mass in baseball or softball uniforms, or work clothes, or outdoor summer outfits, and in those occasions — which do occur — we should of course come rather than not show up because of our attire. But those occasions should be relatively rare. There was the tradition for generations of our “Sunday best,” when we would save and wear our best clothes for Mass on the Lord’s day. If we love the Lord, if we’re wise, we’ll bring that tradition back each of our households at a time.

e. If we wisely base our lives on Christ in the Eucharist, we will prepare for Mass during the week and show up early to clear our minds and get ready. We show up early for the things we really think our important because we wouldn’t want to miss a moment, because we’d want to get the best seats. There are sometimes when Catholics, especially those with kids, will arrive late for Mass, but if we find that we’re always arriving late, then it’s a sign of a lack of love, of seriousness, of wisdom.

f. We will participate in Mass with joy, responding heartily and singing joyfully.

g. We will make profound genuflections, full of love, to Christ the king of kings in the tabernacle.

h. We will stay to the end of Mass and thank God for the gift of the Eucharist and not be in a hurry to leave. There will of course occasionally be some reason why we might need to leave briskly after Mass, but this should never become a general practice. Is what we’re heading toward more important than what and Whom we’re leaving?
i. We will promote priestly vocations actively from among our families so that future generations can have this gift of the food of everlasting life. Priests are the only creatures in the entire solar system who, by God’s design, can bring Christ’s body and blood back down to earth. If the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life and of our life, then we will pray incessantly for priestly vocations, encourage them at all times and consider it a great blessing if God were to choose one of our sons or grandsons to be priest. A second application is that we will be grateful for the priests we have, even if sometimes their shortcomings are all too apparent. Despite those shortcomings, they can still give us Christ in the Eucharist and we should be able to put up with a lot for that incredible gift.

j. Finally, we will try to make our lives more and more Eucharistic, by turning each day into a Mass, uniting ourselves with the sacrifice of the altar and then heading outward to love others as Christ has loved us, giving God and others our body, our blood, our sweat, our tears, our hearts, our efforts out of love for them.

8 ) “You who are simple, turn in here!,” divine wisdom says to us again today: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity and walk in the way of insight!” As we prepare to take up bread and wine and witness the Lord Jesus through his priest transform them into his body and blood, we ask him to help us to lay aside our immaturity and worldly pseudo-wisdom and walk in the way of insight, walk in his commands, walk in the ways of the Lord, so that we, in receiving his body and blood here on earth, may experience one day together everlasting life and joy at the eternal wedding banquet of which this Mass is a foretaste. Happy are those who are called to His Supper!