Body and Blood of The
Slouching into summer we push open the lectionary of the next two weeks to a pair of gospels that happily look familiar. Even better, in a season crowded with picnics, ballgames, vacations, and convertibles, it's comforting to discover that the theme for next Sunday is food.
The church calendar turns colors along with the school calendar. Just as we tuck away the uniforms and haul out the shorts, so we pack up the last of the Easter decorations and adorn the surroundings with less festive garments. Across the bridge of Trinity Sunday and The Body and Blood of the Lord, the church year transports us from the high plains of Easter to the valleys of ordinary time. On weekdays we've already made the transition, but in a couple weeks the green vestments of summer return on Sundays to reassure those weary of solemnity that now it's back to business as usual.
By sheer coincidence, this year's gospel text for The Body and Blood of the Lord (Luke 9:11b-17) stops at the verse which begins the gospel of the following week (Luke 9:18-24). Since the date of Easter can fluctuate over a five week period, the number of the first ordinary time Sunday after Easter also changes from year to year. Even though it looks like the lectionary had this sequence of readings planned for us, it's just an accident that happens this year.
At first, it seems like a good deal. After all, next Sunday's gospel entices the reader with a story about free food. But when we return to ordinary time, we learn there's no such thing as a free lunch.
The miracle of the loaves appears in all four gospels, and twice in both Matthew and Mark. Luke's version covers familiar terrain. Jesus has drawn a large crowd unprepared for the day, and his compassion for them moves him to provide for their needs. In gestures which foreshadow the giving of the Eucharist at the last supper, Jesus took the food, looked up to heaven, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples to give to the crowd. By choosing all those verbs, Luke wants us to remember the story of the loaves when we get to the last supper. He implies that this miracle will help us understand Jesus' gift of the Eucharist. His mission provided food for the hungry; his Eucharist will feed our hungry souls.
At Mass, incidentally, when the first eucharistic prayer describes the last supper, it says that before Jesus broke the bread he gave thanks and praise "looking up to heaven." The rubrics even ask the presider to look up at that point. However, the last supper accounts in the Bible never say that Jesus looked up at this point; the eucharistic prayer borrows that verb from the miracle of the loaves.
This miracle, so popular with the evangelists, remains a favorite today. Its picnic setting seems a fitting opening to summer. But just when we're in the mood to lick the grease from our fingers, shake the ants off the blankets, and soak up some sun, the following Sunday's gospel sends a storm cloud overhead.
Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do the crowds say I am?" Peter answers for the group, "The Messiah of God." In Luke's version, Jesus does not tell Peter (as he does in Matthew) that the answer was given to him by the heavenly Father. Instead, it appears that Peter figured this out from his own experience of Jesus.
Then the mood turns somber. Jesus predicts his passion and resurrection, and he reveals the cost of discipleship. His followers must be prepared to take up a cross daily to follow him. He invites them not just to martyrdom at the end of life, but to a daily routine of self-denial and unyielding loyalty to the message he has proclaimed.
Although these two gospels move us from the lazy joy of a carefree outdoor meal to the indigestion of sorrow and suffering, they invite us to reaffirm the heart of our faith. Like Peter, we believe that Jesus is the Messiah of God. And we believe that he who fed the hungry shares himself still in a miracle over bread and wine week after week in our churches.
[Published in the Catholic Key on 6/7/98 for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi]