Eucharist: Entertainment or Nourishment?

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18th Sunday in Ordinary Time


I have noticed with interest these last few years the attention we as a society give to the food we eat. Let’s face it. We prepare food, consume food, store food, talk about food, and think of food more than we do breathing. I suppose there aren’t a whole lot of different and creative ways of breathing. Also, the perfume, deodorant, air-freshener, and seasonal allergy remedy industries haven’t really offered anything new on that front. Meanwhile, smoking has since been identified as hazardous to human existence. But that’s not where I was going. So the food pyramid first appeared in Sweden in 1974 to encourage healthy nutrition, and came to the US in 1992, was revised in 2005, and replaced with a plate in 2011. In 1990 the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law, requiring nutrition labeling for all packaged food. In 1994, labels had to include a basic per serving nutrition information panel. In 2006, the labels had to identify trans-fat content. And in 2012, nutrition labels were required on cut meats as well.

I’m not done. Just setting the stage here. The fast food industry continues to see growth from revenues of $138.3 billion in 2002 to $199.34 billion in 2015, and projects growth to $210.22 billion in 2018. That’s a lot of burgers, fries, tacos, and soft drinks. Last year, the US Department of Agriculture issued new rules governing the sale of junk food in schools, pushing the sale of fruit, dairy products, whole-grain foods, lean-protein products or vegetable items with less than 200 calories for “snacks” and 350 calories for “entrees.” Meanwhile, the rate of obesity has doubled worldwide since 1980. The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2013 that 35.5% of the adult US population, 18 years and older, is overweight; and 28.3% is obese. In 2015, 29.1 million Americans were diagnosed with diabetes, of which 95% is type 2 diabetes. That’s 9.3% of the population, or if this church were full, that’s 26 of us, or everyone in the choirloft. Don’t look around. Keep your eyes on me. Actually, look at Jesus. He looks lean and fit.

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I know that’s a lot of numbers. And most of us will probably just keep doing as we’ve been doing. I know. It’s a free country. I’m not suggesting anyone do otherwise, unless you’re convinced you have to change anything. It’s entirely up to you. Or as one Polish proverb says, “Nie mój cyrk. Nie moje małpy.—Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” Besides, we all understand the difference between knowing something and living it. This has been exactly the challenge of living the Christian faith throughout human history. Just because we know about grace and sin, and temptation, and forgiveness doesn’t mean we will act on that knowledge. And this time, look at yourself.

When Jesus faced the crowd that was looking for him after he fed 5000 of them from a young boy’s lunch basket of 5 loaves and 2 fish, he pointed out that they were not really interested in what he was trying to tell them, that they were just looking for a free lunch. And after that little dig, he took the occasion to point out that he truly had something more to offer. “Do not work for food that perishes but for food that endures to eternal life, which I will give you.” Food that fills the belly can be satisfying and nourishing to a point. But food for the soul gives life eternal. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

We don’t hear of the crowd’s reaction in the gospel until next weekend, so let’s focus on Jesus’ offer. Jesus’ listeners were familiar with manna, the bread Moses provided for Israel on their journey through the desert. Flashback to the scene in the first reading, after Israel had just been set free from slavery in Egypt. Not too long ago, they had watched in awe as God sent 10 plagues upon their Egyptian overlords, building up to the Destroying Angel slaying all the first-born in the land, while passing over their homes marked with the blood of the Passover lamb. Then they crossed the Red Sea on dry ground while Pharaoh’s chariots and horses were swept away in the rushing waters. And for the length of their journey through the desert to Sinai, the mountain of God, they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Soon they got bored and tired of the desert with all its sand and scorching heat and isolation. They began to long for the days of their slavery in Egypt, concocting some romanticized image of comfort and plenty, and forgetting all that God had done on their behalf. Still, God did not abandon them. With great patience and mercy, God drew Israel to know and love him. So we sometimes find ourselves longing for that time when our Christian faith didn’t require of us such things as humility, and self-sacrifice, and love for our neighbors. Are we saying we actually miss the time when we were slaves to selfishness and sin? Following Jesus can be such a drag sometimes. Too many rules. Too many restrictions. Not enough fun. Not enough excitement. And church? Don’t even get me started. We think Israel was dense and ungrateful. How do we justify our own shallowness and hardness of heart?

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Now the manna that Moses provided would be the closest thing Jesus’ listeners could think of bread coming down from heaven. But Moses was God’s faithful servant. If anyone could call down bread from heaven, it would be him. So who is this Jesus claiming not only to give them bread from heaven, but to himself be that same bread from heaven? “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” They had already forgotten that they had just eaten their fill from 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.

Clearly their minds were still closed to the truth Jesus was trying to get across to them, that he would nourish their souls better than physical food would nourish their bodies. And even now, we still hunger more for food that perishes than for food that gives eternal life. I was speaking to a young man yesterday who talked about what his Catholic faith means. He has been with his friends at their churches over the years. They claim most traditional church services are just too boring, too uninspired. They much prefer a service that gets them to their feet, hands in the air, waving, clapping, raising their heart rate. But when they leave, have their souls truly been nourished? Or did they just get a good workout?

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds us, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds …[rather] be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” This renewal in the spirit of our minds he refers to is a new way of thinking, a new understanding that brings about lasting change in the way we live our lives. That is why we don’t receive communion until after we have heard God’s Word proclaimed and preached, because God’s Word is bread from heaven. If all we come for is bread to feed the body, then we will hunger again. Is it nourishment we seek, or entertainment?

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Rolo B Castillo © 2015