Called into communion

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The author of this Sunday’s selection from Deuteronomy (we’ll assume he was a man, because women didn’t have the leisure time to learn to read and write) was writing history in the form of a homily he attributed to Moses. Narrating what happened when God provided bread “back then,” he was really addressing an audience living hundreds of years after the desert trek. This author wrote because he knew that the Exodus adventure was not a one-time event and people of other ages would need to appropriate it for themselves.

Moses gave his people one command in two forms: “Remember” and “Do not forget.” What Moses wanted the people to remember was that in their wandering, when they were fed up with God and afraid they would die, God remained with them, putting up with their complaints and seeing to it that both their basic and their deepest needs were met.

The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 10:16-17
John 6:51-58

In those days, our ancestors in the desert gradually became fearful that they had let their hopes and dreams carry them too far. Freedom had sounded great when they were in Egypt under the thumbs of their taskmasters, but when the road ahead appeared interminable, the vision in the rearview mirror looked better than it ever had before. They had left slavery, but for what? Hope was not solid enough to calm their hunger nor wet enough to slake their thirst.

Moses reminded them that, in spite of their fears, they didn’t die. The water from the rock was not as good as Perrier, and the mysterious manna might have been as insipid as it was nourishing, but they didn’t perish just because they didn’t have everything they wanted. In fact, they learned that God could be counted on to take care of them, never leaving them to face their perils alone. They came to recognize God’s loving presence through their times of trouble.

Moses did more than hint that the Israelites had needed every one of the 40 years of that trial in order to learn faith. Their want slowly led them to understand what was truly important. Eventually, the vision in the rearview mirror lost its luster, and they understood that they could survive with very little as long as God was with them. If they hadn’t learned that important lesson, they might have remained forever unable to distinguish between what gives life and what simply satisfies an appetite.

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From the days of Exodus, we fast-forward a few centuries to see a crowd pressing Jesus to keep them miraculously supplied with free bread. The problem Jesus faced was that the people who sought him remembered the story of Moses in the desert, but they didn’t remember what their ancestors had learned there. Jesus was offering them bread, but it was the bread of life, the bread of commitment, the bread of following him through suffering into the real life of union with God. Instead of allowing themselves to comprehend that he was offering his life for them, they refused to go beyond the level of the literal. They mocked him. Perhaps afraid to take him seriously, they jeered as others would at the crucifixion: “How can this man give us his flesh (his mortal self) to eat?” Like a new Moses, Jesus was inviting them into his own exodus through death to life. He was inviting them to receive him as the Father’s gift and become one with him, but they only had an appetite for a miraculous supply of bread.

What St. Paul tells the Corinthians in today’s second reading offers a commentary on Jesus’ offer to be living bread for us. Speaking of the community’s eucharistic meal, Paul reminds his people that eating and drinking in the name of Christ implies being united with him in his self-giving, in his dying and his rising. It is communion, not a free lunch.

Between the 13th and the mid-20th centuries, Catholics often celebrated this feast with elaborate public processions that focused on Christ’s miraculous presence in the consecrated host carried aloft. The readings the church has chosen for this feast change our focus from the symbolic procession to a contemporary Exodus. Today’s Scriptures lead us to realize that celebrating the Eucharist calls us to go out of ourselves, to move beyond our preferences and appetites, and to take up Jesus’ offer of communion with him. This is a journey that will be every bit as frightening and grace-filled as the one on which Moses led his people. Our advantage over our Israelite ancestors is that we can learn from their experience and go beyond it. Christ promises us not just his presence, but the communion that gave him life.

[Mary M. McGlone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the U.S.]

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