31 July 2011

Judah Ben-Hur and the Eucharist

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
            When I first looked over the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, one of the first images that popped into my head was a scene from “Ben Hur,” the classic movie starring Charlton Heston.  The movie’s quite long, so if you’re going to download it or rent it be prepared for a whole afternoon or late night spent watching it.  It is, however, worth it.  What many do not realize is that the movie is subtitled: “A Story of the Christ.” 
            The particular scene that comes to mind is when, circa AD 30, Judah Ben-Hur, the main character, is in chains, being led through the Judean desert as a traitor to Rome.  The prisoners stop for a moment so that the Roman soldiers and horses can get water.  But no water is offered to the prisoners, and anyone who tries to offer them water is pushed away by the Roman soldiers.  But then, one man, with a kind of light emanating from Him, approaches Judah and gives him a cup of water.  Judah drinks the water gratefully, and is entranced as he looks upon this man who gave him the cool, refreshing water.  Even the Romans are stopped as they look upon the face (which we never see) of the Jew who dared to defy them.  The unseen face, of course, belongs to Jesus.
            Jesus tells us, through the prophet Isaiah, that if we are thirsty, all we need do is come to the water, and He will refresh us.  We see in this passage an allusion to the waters of baptism, the waters which quench our souls of the thirst that every human being has for God.  During these hot, summer days, how refreshing it is to jump into a cold lake or pool, or to take a cool shower after working hard in our hot and humid days.  Even more so, then, does baptism cool us from all of our passions which, if not ordered correctly, can lead us to a place which makes a hot, humid summer day in Michigan feel as cool as an air-conditioned office. 
Mosaic of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish
at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves
in the Holy Land.
You'll notice that there are only 4 loaves.
The 5th is the "loaf" on the altar which becomes the
Body of Christ
            But we also see that our God, our loving God, is not some disinterested, disconnected deity.  He is not the god of the Enlightenment, who simply set a whole chain of events in motion and then watches from afar, not concerned with our daily needs.  No, we see in the words of the prophet, and especially in our Gospel, that Jesus cares about our daily, earthly needs as well.  He knows that in order to help us understand the spiritual reality, we need to also have our earthly realities addressed.  And so, after the people heard the teachings of Jesus, the Word of God, they were hungry.  As a sign, a quasi-sacrament, we might say, of His love for us, Jesus multiplies 5 loaves of bread and two fish, and miraculously makes them enough to feed 5,000 men, and likely as many, if not more, women and children.  God doesn’t just tell us how much He loves us.  He shows us, in Jesus, by giving us food for the soul (the truth, which is really Jesus Himself) and food for the body.
            Do we not ask, each Sunday, and hopefully each day, in the Lord’s Prayer that we receive our daily bread?  We ask God to be with us in our earthly needs, whether they be food and drink, employment, shelter, health, or whatever else we may need, and He generously responds, either through a miracle, like in today’s Gospel, or through His Mystical Body, the Church, of which we are a part. 
            And yet, even as we know that God is concerned with what’s happening in our day-to-day life, He does not stop there.  Just as the words of the Prophet Isaiah remind us of baptism, the water that truly refreshes us, so the multiplication of the loaves is supposed to prepare and remind us about the Eucharist, the sacred bread which does not become part of us, but makes us a part of Him whose Body it is.  In giving us the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus leads us to the Eucharist, the bread come down from heaven which satisfies the hunger of the soul for the God who made it.  Even the words of the Lord’s Prayer in Scripture, “give us this day our daily bread,” when read in the Latin or Greek, refer to a super-substantial bread, a bread which is above the usual substance of wheat which has been crushed and then baked, because it is no longer bread, but really the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, which fully satisfies us, just as the 5,000 men, and the other women and children ate of the loaves and fish and were satisfied.
            What great love God has for us, that He cares for us enough to satisfy our needs.  He comes down to us in our hunger and thirst and feeds us and gives us water to quench our thirst.  If we were fully convinced of this love, then following Jesus, trusting in Jesus, and loving Jesus in return would not be something which we would consider not doing, because we would know that separating ourselves from that love would be as foolish as separating ourselves from the food and drink that nourishes our body, for the love of God is the true nourishment of our souls.  
            As we approach the Eucharist, the true bread come down from heaven which gives life to those who receive it worthily, let us know in our heads and in our hearts that this is the love of God made manifest to us in a tangible way.  The Eucharist is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are those who are called to the banquet of the Lamb.