Sunday, August 3, 2014

Eucharist, Confession, and a Big Picnic

The basic story of the Old Testament is the story of God's chosen people Israel not living up to their role as God's chosen people. It's the story of God remaining faithful to his people Israel when Israel was constantly unfaithful to him. So then the New Testament is the story of God sending his Son, the only one who was ever faithful to him, and this Son establishing around himself a new people, a new Israel, who would remain faithful to the Father. This new Israel would remain faithful not by their own efforts, after all their own weak efforts were the source of all their past failures, but because this Son would remain in their midst and they would remain in the Son.

Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel
The first reading is a beautiful plea from God through his prophet Isaiah. It's beautiful, but it's a little bit sad. God is pleading with his people to just depend on him, to rely on him for everything, because they constantly try to supply their own needs. One way to understand the basic sin of Israel is that they constantly tried to attend to their own needs instead of relying on God.

All of that is background for understanding today's gospel. To really go in depth for this reading from Matthew's gospel, we need to understand what's been happening in the story so far. In the last few chapters, Jesus' authority has been shown by means of a series of miracles, and then he talked about how that authority was going to belong to the disciples. Then we saw the Old Israel, the unfaithful Israel of the leaders and authorities, reject Jesus, and Jesus issued a judgment on the Old Israel by means of parables, where he told a hard-to-understand parable and only gave the explanation to his disciples.

Everything that has happened so far has been to prepare for the New Israel, the kingdom of heaven, the Church, that Jesus will establish. And today's gospel is another step in establishing the kingdom. Over the next several weeks, we are going to see Jesus firmly establish this New Israel on Peter and the apostles. Today we see an early step in the establishment of this New Israel. The New Israel, the new people of God, will consists of those who hear Jesus and allow themselves to be nourished by them. That's what the New Israel will look like. It will be those who let themselves be nourished by Jesus.

But there are details here we have to notice, because Matthew isn't just telling us the story of a picnic. Matthew wants us to understand this as an allusion to the Eucharist, and Matthew also wants us to understand the role the apostles have in this New Israel that relies on Jesus. So let's look at those two things.
Feeding of the 5000 by Tintoretto. Clothing may not be entirely accurate :)
First, the Eucharist. Matthew uses four deliberate verbs here that he will use again at the Last Supper. Mark does the same thing in his gospel, and so does Luke. So what are the words? Today's gospel read "Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds." The four verbs used to describe Jesus' actions are" took," "blessed," "broke," and "gave." Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. Matthew will use the exact same verbs at the Last Supper to describe Jesus' actions with the bread at that table. By this, Matthew wants us to see in this miraculous feeding a foretaste of the Eucharist.

And each time the mass is offered, the priest uses the same words to recount the Institution of the Eucharist. The priest says "He took bread, and giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples." We still recognize that the Eucharist nourishes us just like the bread and fish nourished that crowd of 5,000 when they received it.

As a side note, this should help us to understand how we are to receive Communion. When somebody gives you a gift, you don't take the gift, you receive the gift. So when we receive communion, we should receive it, not take it. I am a fan of receiving Communion on the tongue, I think it's a good gesture of humility to not even touch the Body of Jesus with our hands. But you may receive Communion in your hands, and at that point you should place one hand over the other and let the priest or extraordinary minister place the host in the palm of your hand. Don't take it from the priest, that tends to make him very uncomfortable, but receive it from him. Obviously this isn't absolutely required, so if you have one hand on a cane or your hands don't quite work normally, don't worry about it at all. Receive Communion however you can. But in general, we receive on the tongue or with one hand placed in another.

Now, the second thing we need to discuss is the role of the apostles in this New Israel. If we look again at this gospel passage we see that Jesus didn't feed the 5,000 directly. He gave the bread to the apostles, and they gave it to the crowds. Now, if Jesus wanted to feed the people directly he certainly could have. He was in the midst of feeding over 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fishes. Physical limitations were not an issue here. So Jesus wanted to use intermediaries to care for the people.

Throughout the gospels, we see that in Jesus' ministry some people were closer to him than others. Jesus liked hierarchy. Closest to him were the apostles Peter, James, and John. They were the only ones who got to see the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden. Then there were the 12 apostles, and then the 70 disciples with a lesser share in the work, and then the crowds. Jesus wants a personal relationship with you, after all he rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep little kids away, but in this New Israel he also wants you to know him through his apostles and disciples.

So hopefully we meet Jesus through the bishops, the heirs of the apostles, and the priests they have ordained. At the very least, this is a call to me to be to try to be such a person in whom you can see Jesus. And for you, the call is to recognize that Jesus wants you to find him through the imperfect people he has chosen as priests. Once we recognize this, then when it comes to confession we can no longer say "I confess my sins to Jesus in my heart" (I hear that sometimes) because Jesus says "No, that's now how I set the system up, I set it up so you can tell your sins to me through my priests." And Jesus doesn't arrange a second-rate system. He set it up this way because he know's it's the best for us.

So our role as members of this New Israel is to stay close to our Lord who founded it. We do this by recognizing him in the breaking of the bread, and by recognizing him in the ministers he left behind to continue his work. And by doing this, by faithfully being this New Israel, we will come to the heavenly Jerusalem where there will be no more hunger and no more sin.

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