Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
20th Sunday in OT, Year B
August 20, 2000
Prov9:1-6; Eph5:15-20; Jn 6:51-58
1) Two-thousand years ago the disciples used to constantly ask Jesus what heaven was like and Jesus would often reply to them in the form of parables, in the form of analogies that would allow them to understand certain aspects of an experience that is sure to exceed all of our imagination. One of the images to which he returned repeatedly, however, was the image of a banquet. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son,” he said among other images. A banquet — particularly a wedding banquet, which would last for 8 days amidst the great joy of the bride and groom and their families, at a time when food was often scarce — was a great image of a gift given to others and of a celebration. Hence it was a fitting image for heaven, for the gift that heaven is. The Lord is preparing a never-ending banquet for the saints and he has invited us to come and rejoice with him forever in it. That is the eternal wedding banquet the Father is throwing for his Son.
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 one banquet in which there are two extraordinary courses. We discover the first course in the reading from the Book of Proverbs and the second course 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, invites anyone who is “simple” and “lacks understanding” to “come and eat” of the banquet of God’s word set forth for them. God offers at this banquet HIS WISDOM and offers it in abundance through the readings of Sacred Scripture. The books of Sacred Scripture constitute His Love-letters to us his children, in which he tries to impart to us, through the ministry of chosen human beings throughout history, who He truly is, who we are, what is the meaning and purpose of our lives, and so much more. He who created us out of love has given us these love letters in which we can both discover ourselves and him. We have time only to read extremely small sections of them at Mass each week, a little from the writings of the law and the prophets, a little from the psalms of praise written by the Holy Spirit through the Jews whom he called to be his own people, something from the Acts of the Apostles or the letters of the Apostles, and then an excerpt from the Gospel in which Jesus himself speaks to us again here just as he spoke to the disciples two thousand years ago in Palestine. What an unbelievable treasure this is! This book, the Bible, properly understood and interpreted, contains the answers for the greatest mysteries of human life, who we are, where we’re going, and how to get there, and tells us, even more importantly, about God and his love for us. Sacred Scripture gives us the recipe of that eternal banquet.
4) God invites all of us to that eternal banquet and to this weekly and daily banquet which participates in that eternal one, but, as we read, only those who are “simple” and “lack understanding” will be let in through the doors. These expressions from Proverbs are not an exaltation of stupidity — as if you have to be an idiot to be a faithful Catholic, which is what sometimes people throughout the centuries have been erroneously led to believe — but rather a glorification of humility before God. The simple person understands, like Jesus’ friend and Lazarus’ sister Mary, that only one thing is necessary, God. The simple person recognizes that life is, in the final analysis, simple, because he or she tries to see things always from the perspective of God. The simple person recognizes that he or she doesn’t have to do a million and one things to please God, but simply to come to Him, follow His Lead, freely say yes to each of his invitations and love him. The one who “lacks understanding” is the one who recognizes that he doesn’t have all of the answers to the things that matter most. This is the person who comes to God to listen to His wisdom, because he or she KNOWS that he or she is NOT GOD. Socrates, who was perhaps the greatest philosopher of all time, living in Greece 600 years before Christ, said that the wise man is the one who “truly knows how much he does not know.” Notice he didn’t say that the wise man is the one who knows how much he knows, or the one who knows more than others, but rather the one who knows how much he does NOT KNOW. For as great as human knowledge is, any one of us can only learn a small fraction of what can be known — and when we come to the great mysteries of human life, we can know only far less still, and only with God’s help. And so the Book of Proverbs praises the one who “lacks understanding” in the face of the “wise of the world” because it is precisely they who understand that they need to go to God, to the Source of All Wisdom who is God, to learn from Him. As St. Paul says in the second reading, the truly wise person, the opposite of the fool, is the one who seeks to understand what the will of the Lord is.
5) Today in our world there are a lot of fools, those who think they know better than God, those who think that God is irrelevant and that religion is just something for “sissies,” some type of drug for the feeble-minded or weak-willed. I think we’ve all come across them among our own acquaitances. Karl Marx, the German philosopher whose ideas led to the rise of Marxism and Communism and the terrible consequences that they brought about, used to call Christianity the “opium” of the people, the drug for the stupid masses. Last Fall, the Governor of Minnesota, the former pro-wrestler, Jesse the Body Ventura — no Rhodes scholar himself — said religion was for wimps. These arrogant people are justifying their own lack of humility and interior peace by criticizing those others who have found the true meaning and treasure of life in something other than economics (for Marx) or physical or governmental power (for Ventura), in something rather that lasts forever, precisely in Someone who is from the beginning. Don’t ever let these idiots rob you of your peace and faith! They don’t know what they’re talking about.
6) But there are also a lot of fools inside the Church as well, who, too, think that they know better than God. These are the ones who presume to tell God how he should run His Church. These are the ones who give the impression that they could be better at being God than God is. I have met these people very frequently in the course of my priestly ministry, both while I was a student in Rome working with pilgrims, but also here in Fall River as a priest. These are the people, for example, who presume to tell the Pope that he has to ordain women priests, even though Jesus Christ never did, even though the apostles never did, even though the Church never has and cannot. These are the people who say that the Church should cave in on abortion or extramarital sex or homosexual activity, despite the fact that it is God who has made it abundantly clear both that and why these actions are always wrong. These are the ones who come to the rectory for sponsor certificates for baptism and get angry at the priest when the priest has to say that he cannot give them one because they do not practice and do not want to practice their faith, as if their example of not-practicing the faith should be the example for the newly-baptized. These are the ones who attack the Church for not allowing divorce-and-remarriage, even though God himself forbade this in the beginning with Adam and Eve. I could go on, and I’m sure many of you in your own discussions of the faith, could add your own stories. The point is that to be a faithful Catholic, to be let into the door of the banquet in which we feast on God’s wisdom, we have to be humble and recognize just how much we do not know and to come and listen to the Lord for the Truth that will set us free from this ignorance. We have to come to the God who created us in the beginning, who sent His Son from Heaven to save us, Jesus, who himself founded only One Church on the Apostles, filled them with the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth, gave them the power to bind on heaven and on earth, said to them “whoever hears you, hears me,” and whose successors still reign in the successors of Peter and the Apostles, the Pope and the College of Bishops. Whenever people attack them on a matter of TEACHING (rather than, for example, their own personal behavior), don’t be deceived: whether they recognize it or not, they’re attacking God.
7) What a great gift this banquet of God’s word is! It is a genuine treasure the likes of which the world cannot give. But the Lord has given us even more than that in order to help us on our pilgrim way. He follows us this first course of the Word of God with the second, the Word of God made flesh, His Own Son, in the Eucharist. This is truly the foretaste of everlasting life, because Jesus himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He himself says, “The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Later, he adds the crucial importance of the Eucharist, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The Eucharist, Jesus truly and really present on the altar and in the tabernacle and within us when we receive him, is truly the GREATEST GIFT THE WORLD HAS EVER RECEIVED, because it is in the Eucharist, our literal participation in the death of resurrection of Christ, that we are saved. At the last Supper, Jesus gave us the new and eternal Covenant in His Blood. It displaced the Covenant God made with Moses during the Passover, when they had to kill the umblemished lamb, sprinkle his blood upon their door posts — … and do what? They also had to eat the lamb. If they had merely killed the lamb, sprinkled the blood on the posts and gone to bed, they would have awakened for the journey and the Jews’ first born sons would have been dead. They had to eat the lamb! In the same way, we have to eat the lamb to enter into this new and eternal covenant! But we have to eat the lamb worthily and we have to understand what we’re doing.
8 ) About six years ago, there was a study published in the New York Times about Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ. It said that only about 30% of Catholics who described themselves as practicing Catholics believed that Jesus himself was really and truly present in the Eucharist, that there was no bread and no wine left after the miracle of transubstantiation. Only 30%. The bishops in the United States were stunned, as were Catholics throughout the world. So in case anyone here might be confused about what we believe about the Eucharist, we’ll cover it. After the consecration, after Christ says through the priest says, “This is my body,” “This is the cup of my blood,” there is no longer ANY BREAD or ANY WINE. None. The substance of the bread and the wine is completely and totally changed into the Risen Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, even though the appearances remain. So what might look like funny unleavened bread and cheap wine is no longer bread and wine AT ALL! The Eucharist is Christ, the same Christ who walked the dirt roads of Palestine 2000 years ago, the same Christ who raised Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, the same Christ who healed countless sick people and those afflicted with demons, the same Christ who walked on water, the same Christ who died on the Cross for each and every single one of us here and the same Christ who definitively rose from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. IF THE EUCHARIST THAT WILL SOON COME DOWN UPON THIS ALTAR IS NOT TRULY THE REAL BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST, THEN LET US ALL GO TO THE PARKING RIGHT NOW, AND THE LAST ONE IN HIS CAR IGNITION STARTED WOULD BE THE BIGGEST FOOL! If Jesus is not really and truly present in the Eucharist, then our faith is in vain and we’re completely wasting our time here.
9) But it is Jesus, even though it does not look like him. It must have been hard for the first disciples in Palestine to look at Jesus, who looked just like any other human being, and recognize that he was truly God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. He humbled himself to come among us like a man, and a lot of his opponents, like the ones in today’s Gospel, used to constantly throw that at him, as if he were merely a man pretending to be God. “How can a man give us his flesh to eat?” as if Jesus were a lunatic talking about cannibalism. But Jesus humbles himself even more to come down to us under the appearances of bread and wine, but he is really and truly present in these sacred species, as much as he ever was at the seashore of Galilee or on Calvary. We need faith to recognize this, and faith is always a gift, but it is gift that God will always give us if we ask him.
10) The Eucharist is really Jesus, that same Jesus present among the apostles. And it’s obvious how few Catholics really understand this and act in accordance with it. If people truly recognized this is Jesus, one would think that the confessionals would be packed. Once upon a time, they were packed, because people had a greater faith in the sacrament of the Eucharist and recognized that they could not receive him unworthily. As St. Paul wrote to the Church of Corinth, he says to us: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” If people recognized this were truly the God who created them and died on the Cross for them, one would think that they would receive the Lord with great devotion and not with their hands down, with a very faint and almost bored “amen” as if someone were forcing them to receive communion like some type of sour-tasting medicine. If people truly believed this is Jesus they’re coming to meet at Mass, then those who dress as if they are going out for an ice-cream cone or for a cookout would dress differently. Don’t get me wrong: I would rather have you come naked to Mass than not to come at all, and I’m not trying to criticize anyone in particular, but to raise the question about whether how you dress might indicate what you think about whom you’re coming to meet. If you wouldn’t dress the way you normally dress for Mass if you had a private meeting with the Pope, then you shouldn’t dress that way when you come to meet the Pope’s boss, the God who created everything you see and you. But more than anything, if people really believed this were Jesus in the Eucharist, and they were about to receive him, they’d live this Eucharist — which is the Greek word for thanksgiving — with great ENTHUSIASM and JOY, come here a little earlier to get ready to receive this gift, participate with great fervor during Mass, stay for a little while to pray for having received this gift (rather than rushing out to the parking lot right after the final blessing), and take the joy of this life with Jesus to others by recognizing that they have become living tabernacles, living monstrances, living temples of God. As Jesus himself says to everyone of us who receives him today, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” When we receive him worthily, we live in him and he lives in us. If we knew we were taking Jesus with us every where we go, into every conversation, into every room, I think all of us would act a little differently.
11) Lastly, and this is a great appeal that comes straight from my heart. If we truly believed this was Jesus present in the Eucharist, this parish would be burning on fire for priestly vocations. Without priests, you will never have access to the Eucharist. Even if all of the angels in heaven were present here in this Church right now, not even all of them together would be able to make Christ present in the Eucharist. If the Blessed Mother herself came down from heaven right here, right now, not even she would be able to give you her Son again. The priest is the only person in the whole universe who is capable of doing that for Christ. And we do have a priest shortage. We’re closing Churches here in Fall River because they’re aren’t enough priests to fill them. Such a fact should make every single one of us here in this Church break down with tears. And more Churches will close, and more and more people will go hungry for the Eucharist, unless there are more priests. I’d like to ask every young unmarried man in this Church to pause for a moment today before leaving Church and have the guts to ask the Lord whether he might be calling you to be a priest. I’d like to ask every person in this Church, mothers, fathers, grandparents, young women, children, to encourage any one you might know to consider being a priest, because without the priest you cannot have Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I, myself, received my priestly vocation as a four-year old attending daily Mass with my Mother in Lowell. I received a grace to understand, when Fr. Jon Cantwell said the words “This is the cup of my blood,” that if I were tall enough to climb up on the altar and look into the chalice I would see Christ’s blood. When I watched him distribute Holy Communion, I said to myself, he must be the luckiest man in the whole world, capable of holding God in his fingertips and giving him to others. And now, after 14 months as a priest, I can affirm that I am the luckiest man in the whole world. My prayer is that every year SEVERAL young men here at Espirito Santo may actively consider that call and that every single parishioner here every single day will pray for an increase in priestly invocations and encourage sons, grandsons and all young Catholic men to consider this vocation as the true treasure it is.
12) I’ve preached longer today than I have in the past and than I promise I will in the future, but this is the only time in the next three years that we will have the readings we do this weekend and I did not want the opportunity to escape. What a great gift we have every single Sunday — indeed what a great gift we have every single day — to come here to this holy place and be fed by the Lord in this enormously generous and sumptuous double-banquet of his word in Sacred Scripture and of the Word made flesh in the Eucharist. This is the foretaste of everlasting life. May we, through this holy Mass, be set on fire with love and appreciation for the magnitude of these gifts, until that day when we, through conforming our lives to these mysteries, arrive at that heavenly banquet that will know no end. Praised be Jesus Christ!