Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday in the Ordinary Time Year B:
“This is the bread that comes down from heaven”: the phrase that Jesus pronounced during his solemn speech in the synagogue of Capernaum implicitly evokes an Old Testament memory presented precisely in today’s first reading. On stage is Elijah, the great prophet of the ninth century. B.C. forced to flee from the persecution of Queen Jezebel who was eager to introduce in Israel the cult of the Phoenician god, the cult of Baal. Elijah’s flight is transformed into a pilgrimage to the spiritual sources of the chosen people, that is, the desert and the “mountain of God”, the Horeb-Sinai. The emptiness of the desolate widens in the heart of Elijah who feels despair in his conscience: it is the crisis of vocation that reaches its peak in panic and in the desire for death.
It is not, however, the almost suicidal protest of Jeremiah (ch. 20) or Job (ch. 3) ‘ is only the longed-for expectation of being freed from persecution to be welcomed by that God who created him and who sent him as his messenger, launching him on an adventure bitter and full of suffering. But the sky is torn apart and here is the bread of the nomads, baked on hot stone slabs, placed next to Elijah, the discouraged prophet: it is an angel of God who offers it to the desolate man so that he may regain strength on the path of life.
The crisis in the Johannine Gospel account instead is expressed through another image, formulated with the verb “to die” which is the biblical verb typical of Israel’s incredulity in the desert during the march of the exodus. Now disbelief arises from the scandal deriving from the humanity of Christ: how can he say that he “came down from heaven” when he is known for being a Carpenter, son of Mary? The incarnation, a transparent expression of God’s love for man, is transformed into an obscurity that blinds the eyes and makes the mind doubtful and the lips “murmur”.
To overcome this scandal – Jesus replies – it is necessary that the heart opens itself to the attraction of the Father, that the conscience listens to the intimate voice of God, that the whole being of man lets itself enveloped by grace. To those who live this experience, which is that of faith, an extraordinary horizon opens: “those who believe have eternal life”.
The bread that came down from heaven and brought by the angel had saved Elijah only temporarily from death. The “living bread which came down from heaven” offered now by Christ (the eucharist) means that “if anyone eats it, he will live forever”. The meaning of this so radical and surprising declaration is to be discovered within the term “eternal life”. In John’s Gospel it does not indicate so much the pure and simple survival beyond death, that immortality of the soul so celebrated by Greek philosophy, especially through the very high pages of Plato. In the fourth Gospel, “eternal life” is synonymous with “divine life”: through the bread of life offered by Christ, the believer enters the very life of God by participation, the believer participates in the being of God, God communicates himself to him, invades him, pervades him, transforms him. Let us evoke the famous Pauline phrase which St. Teresa of Avila identifies with the seventh mansion of the interior castle: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). This is the ultimate union of the soul with the Lord. The exalting experience of grace and divine love poured out into our hearts is the irruption of the peace that the Eucharist generates in the life of the faithful, perhaps, tormented, and anguished, it is the anticipation of perfect intimacy and full joy that we will have when, having crossed the threshold of earthly life, we live eternally with the Lord.
Of course, this declaration of Jesus, while referring primarily to the life of grace and the experience of faith, also introduces a different reading of physical death. It is not the landing on the abyss of nothingness and silence, but it is the encounter with the life without limits, the entrance into the infinite of God. In the Eucharist, Jesus, then, sees that the moment has come when God enters the heart of man and leads him to the truth. It is with the Eucharist that Jesus celebrates the wonder of faith. It is not an external assignment, an official registration, a forced commitment, a choice of interest. Instead, it is first, God’s initiative. It is like the spark of love, lit by God in our hearts. It is up to us not to extinguish it with grumbling or the closing of the heart, with the chill of pride and superficiality. If it is true that Jesus’ speech in the synagogue of Capernaum is a song of the Eucharist, it is also true that it is the celebration of divine love and man’s faith. This faith that has blossomed in us is not like a cold pearl to be guarded, it is like a seed that introduces us into the eternity of God.
– Fr Jude Chijioke