NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 10: 26-33
TWELFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB links to all three readings
Jesus said to the Twelve:
"Fear no one.
Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light;
what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.
And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul;
rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy
both soul and body in Gehenna.
Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Everyone who acknowledges me before others
I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.
But whoever denies me before others,
I will deny before my heavenly Father."
One of the inherent problems with the present Lectionary of Biblical Readings for Mass is the huge chasm in the Gospel narrative of the year; in our 2017 case this would be the Gospel of St. Matthew. It has been early March since we stopped hearing the Matthean Gospel narrative in sequence, in order to observe the appropriate Gospels for the special seasons of Lent and Easter. Consequently, when I sat down this morning to do my prep work, I had to strain to remember where we left St. Matthew’s narrative way back before St. Patrick’s Day.
The good news is that the three synoptic Gospels-Matthew, Mark, and Luke—do parallel each other in their narratives in many places. Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew is preceded by the mission of the Twelve into the local towns to preach and work signs, a venture recorded in Mark and Luke as well. Sunday’s Gospel is a continuing reaction to the just-completed mission. It is interesting that the response to this mission is somewhat different in the Gospels. In Mark, for example, the disciples return, ecstatic over what they believe to be their own accomplishments. The reaction of the Twelve in Matthew, it would seem, is different, for Jesus proceeds into a lengthy lesson on the cost of discipleship. He tells the Apostles to “fear no one.” Perhaps some of their missionary ventures had been “scary.” Our Sunday text is thus focused on the courage and fear factors of discipleship.
In the immediate paragraph preceding Sunday’s text, Jesus begins with the logical observation that if he himself had been called Beelzebub or the prince of devils, as Jesus indeed had been insulted previously in this Gospel, then it would make sense that the men speaking in his name would suffer the same fate. Matthew implies that such attacks on the character of the Twelve had occurred when they preached without Jesus. Thus, the Master’s response to fear no one. Our house commentator R.T. France (see home page) observes that “fear of God” is balanced by “trust in God.” The true disciple’s trust in the Father puts him in good stead with the one being worthy of fear, “who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” Gehenna was an actual historical site mentioned in the Old Testament as a place of previous infant sacrifice; in later Judaic parlance—certainly by Jesus’ day, the term was applied to an other-worldly place of fire and consumption by worms.
Scholars are divided on the precise meaning of Gehenna. Is Jesus’ use of the phrase “soul and body” in terms of ultimate punishment a reference to the secular Greek philosophical anthropology of, say, Aristotle? As a devout Jew Jesus probably adhered to the more traditional Jewish understanding of man as one entity. Thus, his phrasing of punishment of “body and soul” might be better understood as total annihilation. Given that the Gospel preaching was not limited to Palestine but expanded to the Greek world (Paul) and the Roman world (Peter) over time, it would not be surprising to see traces of Greek or Hellenized thinking appearing in the later New Testament writing. In any event, Matthew make clear that Jesus’ enemies can only cause pain to the outer man but cannot destroy the inner core of a human being.
France takes note of the element of secrecy surrounding the message of the Kingdom. For example, Jesus states that “What I say to you in darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops,” literally, from the roof of your own house. There is a level of secrecy and intimacy between Jesus and the Twelve which explains why his instruction to them is “whispered.” What is all the more remarkable about this secrecy is that Sunday’s Gospel text comes just two chapters after the revelatory “Sermon on the Mount.” (Matthew 5-8) The Sermon on the Mount has long been understood as a master plan of the converted life. In our Sunday text, however, Jesus is emphasizing that his disciples are not just converts; they are the ones making converts, the true evangelizers. One might say that Matthew is introducing the first concepts of hierarchy for his kingdom after his death. We will see this again later in the Gospel when Matthew singles out Peter for a unique position of authority and later when he describes a procedure for leaders to bring errant converts back into the true fold. (Matthew 16:18ff and 18:15ff)
When driving north and back earlier this month, Margaret and I were disheartened by the large number of deer killed along the interstate. We have gotten used to dead opossums, squirrels, raccoons. A dead sparrow would not merit a comment in the car. The same zoological pecking order must have been true in Jesus’ day, for he holds the rather commonplace sparrow as an example of God’s reach of protection and compassion. This is Matthew’s version of St. Luke’s Lilies of the Field; if God created and admired common plants and local birds with limited and unremarkable lifespans, how much more is his interest and solitude with his human creation?
That God knows the comings and goings of common sparrows leads to the final section of Sunday’s reading, judgment. There are two factors to consider here. First, Matthew’s Gospel is directed toward a persecuted Church whose allegiance to Jesus and his Father is the subject of life-and-death decisions. Second, those who actively preach the Kingdom anywhere or at any time will be subject to life-and-death decision making. This is consistent with Mark’s analogy of the disciple’s taking up a (genuine) cross. In all cases, the faithful who acknowledges Christ before others will participate in Christ’s reward, advocacy before the Father, who will refuse his son nothing. Those who publicly deny Christ…suffice to say that they will find themselves in position to explain the true circumstances of Gehenna.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 6: 51-58
SOLEMNITY OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to the Jewish crowds:
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world."
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
"How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
Jesus said to them,
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever."
Sunday’s feast is better known by its traditional name, Corpus Christi. Adolf Adam, in his The Liturgical Year, (1981) sketches the history of this feast from its mid-medieval origins. In 1246 Bishop Robert of Liege introduced the feast into his diocese, influenced by the mystical visions of an Augustinian nun, Juliana of Liege, four decades earlier. The feast was extended to the universal Church by Pope Urban IV in 1264 and again by the Council of Vienne in 1312; there is strong if not airtight evidence that the theology and the artistry of the feast is derived from St. Thomas Aquinas. The “Angelic Doctor” is believed to be the composer of the Mass and Office texts for Corpus Christi, including its magnificent hymns. I was surprised to see a well-informed article about this feast in today’s International Business Times, a secular publication.
The medieval Church assigned this feast to the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. My early memory of its observance is on Thursday at the school Mass; however, Church law did allow for the transfer of the feast to the Sunday within the octave. In my home parish, the following Sunday’s solemn high Mass observed the Corpus Christi ritual, and the then-customary procession with the Eucharist followed the Mass. As I suspect was true in many parishes, the first communion class—dressed in white—participated in the Corpus Christi procession. The procession was not originally mandated in the establishment of the feast but the practice developed over time. Adam, writing in 1981, notes a revival of interest in restoring the Corpus Christi procession; my home diocese of Orlando conducts an annual Eucharistic procession in the early evening of the feast. I have no general idea of how individual parishes or dioceses celebrate the feast; in the U.S. liturgical calendar the feast always follows Trinity Sunday.
On major “doctrinal feasts” such as Corpus Christi, the selection of scripture leadings in the lectionary relates directly to the object of the celebration, in our case the Feast of the Holy Eucharist. The Gospel for next Sunday is drawn from Chapter 6 of St. John, the famous “Breads Chapter.” John, of all the evangelists, is the only author without a description of the blessing of the bread and cup at the Last Supper. There are several theories about this omission. The primary one is that John, writing for a church nearly a century old, did not see any reason to repeat what the Church—in its memory and present-day liturgies—knew so well. Instead, he inserts the washing of the feet of the Twelve, as a means of associating the breaking of the bread with humility, fraternity, and service to others.
Another interesting vantage point to St. John’s teaching on the Eucharist comes from the mid-twentieth century Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias. In his The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (1966 English translation) Jeremias finds common ground between John 6:51c, “and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" and a much earlier text—perhaps 60 years earlier--from St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 11: 24b, “this is my body which is for you.” In other words, if we are looking for the institution of the Eucharist in St. John, our best place to look is Chapter 6, and specifically in Sunday’s reading.
St. John’s choice of words is graphically concrete. There are multiple Greek choices for the word flesh; the evangelist specifically and consistently uses the term conveying “flesh meat,” or what a professor of mine once paraphrased as “what they throw to the lions at the zoo.” In Chapter 6 there is little wiggle space to suggest that Jesus is speaking metaphorically, as in “I consumed all the Harry Potter books.” There is some evidence that Roman officials believed Christians consumed infants or engaged in other cannibal behavior from the fragmentary reports they received about the Eucharistic gatherings.
St. John makes three critical points about the Eucharist. Without consuming the sacred meal, there is no inner life of God. Eucharist is elevated to the level of Baptism as an absolute necessity for communion with God. (Both sacraments are, in fact, part of the initiation process into Christian life.) This evangelist was not much of one to seek full communion of God among the butterflies or the obscure lyrics of Bob Dylan. Eucharistic theology of God’s presence is remarkably concrete: eating the food, physical presence, necessity for life. I would be remiss if I did not comment upon a casual present-day attitude regarding participation in the Eucharist. Statistics indicate that about 25% of self-identified Catholics attend Mass weekly.
The second point in Sunday’s reading is John’s emphasis upon the life-giving or animating impact of reception of the bread and the cup. Jesus states that consuming the Eucharistic food brings the believer into a union with himself, who in turn has a lifegiving union with his Father. Modern Catholic theology would speak of “grace,” or the life-giving presence of God himself within the believer. Participation in the Eucharist shapes the mind and the outlook of the receiver toward the moral and attitudinal outcomes Jesus envisioned when he washed the feet of his disciples.
The third feature of “eating my flesh and drinking my blood” is its future orientation. Sunday’s Gospel closes with the powerful promise that “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” All four of the Gospels speak of the Eucharist in a futuristic way; St. Mark’s Last Supper narrative is another splendid example: “He said to them, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will no longer drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” Eucharist is always associated with afterlife and future glory. Again, the contemporary urgency about matters beyond the grave seems dulled today; the idea that faith is a very high-stakes game does not bear much coinage. My sense is that even among Catholics there is a wholesale conception that the Woody Allen adage rules the day: “90% of life is basically showing up.” Maybe. But our best source on the subject is clear: an evangelist who is concrete to the extreme—eating flesh—should probably be taken much more literally on matters of salvation.
As I continue my "family mileposts tour" this week, I don't have my books to help me with posting, so Tuesday's Gospel post for Trinity Sunday won't be available this week.
I do receive my news wire reports, and yesterday I received news from the conservative National Catholic Register. On Pentecost Sunday (two days ago) Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver announced to his diocese that in the future the Sacrament of Confirmation will be conferred upon third graders at the same Mass they receive their first communion. This ordering of initiation is, in fact, the correct one. Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist is the official order of initiation.
However, for most dioceses Confirmation has been administered later than third grade. There are a number of reasons for this, but the practical one at the parochial level is holding on to the students as long as possible for CCD or religious education since Confirmation has been viewed erroneously as a "graduation" from religious instruction.
There are a number of important discussion points here that I can't immediately address here, but I will when I get back to the "friendly confines" of the Cafe. Two of the biggest points that jump out at me: (1) We have an individual making a major change in custom and practice outside the ambit of the USCCB. (2) If the practice were to be replicated elsewhere, what kinds of religious education/faith formation formats would be put in place with the "carrot" of Confirmation now removed from the end of the rainbow?
A further question is the nature of sacraments, notably confirmation. When I get done eating wedding cake and eventually get back to routine, we can discuss them at length. I can't provide links on portable devices, but you can look up National Catholic Register news stories on your own search engines. Will check in as I can.