To begin, I would like to thank Fr. Seamus Hogan and the parish staff for giving me a vacation and allowing me a break. It had been almost two years since I had a vacation and a chance to be away for more than a day or two.
It had also been about two years since I was able to be with my parents. Happily, as vaccinated Canadians were allowed to enter the country, they were able to travel once again and return to their Canadian home near Parry Sound. Since I had not seen my mother in two years, I was a little surprised in the changes that had occurred in her since our last visit. She now uses a walker to walk further than a few steps. My father does everything for her. I am reminded by them of the same faithful witness that I have often seen in many of our older parishioners as they care for one another, or their parents or, their family.
As it had been a long time since they had been able to travel or visit their home here in Canada, one night my father took out some of their old photo albums. As he did so, we looked at pictures of the family over the many decades. In particular, I took great interest at looking at their marriage photos. I could not help but wonder if that young couple who looked so happy on their wedding day ever imagined what was ahead of them and the kind of sacrifices that they would have to make together. This made me think about what a profound covenant marriage is and the work and sacrifice that it takes to keep a covenant and relationship lifegiving over the years. Often, those who enter a covenant do so thinking of the advantages that they hope will come of it; but rarely thinking of the cost and what will be required for the covenant to remain life-giving through the years.
I began by talking about my holiday. Over the next few weeks, we will also be hearing from someone else who is filling in for someone who is getting a little break. This year, we are in Year B of the liturgical readings. Normally, during Year B, the Sunday readings are from the Gospel of Mark. However, Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of them all, and he does not have enough material to fill an entire year of Sunday readings. For that reason, midway through the year, usually always in the summer, Mark is given a summer holiday and we read for six weeks from the Gospel of John, chapter six—the Bread of Life Discourse.
The Bread of Life Discourse began last Sunday with the feeding of the multitude in John’s Gospel. The people were so impressed with the miraculous ability of Jesus to feed them, that they wanted to make Him king immediately, so that they would not have to work anymore to feed themselves and could live off His miraculous ability to produce food for them. They immediately began to compare Jesus to Moses, who had fed the people miraculously during their journey through the desert, from slavery in Egypt to the freedom they would enjoy in the promised land. The desire that the people had to follow Jesus is based on a notion of the covenant which promises them relief from their worldly hunger. They imagine the benefits of this new relationship, but do not think of the cost or what might be asked of them. In fact, they are interested in more signs of the benefits in order that they might truly understand what they will get out of following Jesus.
Jesus is very happy to tell them what the benefits of His food are, but he makes it clear that these are different from what they are anticipating. Jesus clarifies they type of bread that He is offering them as He states: “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God has set his seal.” When they ask how they are to receive this food, Jesus states: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus invites those who wish to be fed on this food that will never perish to a life of discipleship. We who wish to receive the food that will never perish are invited to believe in Christ and do His will in our lives. We are invited to be the People of the New Covenant.
This image of Covenant is one that we are reminded of each time that we come to Mass. In the Eucharistic Prayer, the chalice of wine that is consecrated, and becomes the Blood of Christ, is always accompanied with the words: “for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.” Jesus has given us His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Knowing that we are sinners in need of His love and mercy, He gives Himself that we might have communion with Him today and eternal life. This is the cost of the covenant to Him; it was formed in His Blood. In some ways this is His vow of faithfulness and fidelity to us. This is the sign and sacrament of the New Covenant.
The challenge then for many of us is that we are called to remember what Christ has done for us, that He is with us always, and what His promise to us means for our lives today. I think that for many of us, we can tend to be like the people of Israel. We accept the Lord’s invitation to follow, we head out expecting good times, but as soon as we are challenged to accept the consequences of the freedom that Christ offers us, we want to head back to the old slaveries which had bound us. The people of Israel hated being slaves of the Egyptians. They longed for freedom. They begged the Lord to come and free them and take them away from their oppressed life under Pharaoh. However, no sooner had they left Egypt, they were lamenting the cost of their new found freedom and begging to go back to the slavery with which they were comfortable.
Paul alludes, in this Sunday’s second reading, to the comfort that we sometimes feel with our old ways, or the ways of the world. When challenged to follow Christ, we can hope that we can return to the ways of the world and put off the call to discipleship to an easier or more convenient time and place. In the face of such temptations to resist Christ’s call to witness and follow Him, Paul reminds us in today’s second reading: “You were taught to put away your former ways of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to cloth yourselves with the New Man, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and in holiness.” Paul’s words remind us very powerfully that on those occasions when we are tempted not to follow Christ and to choose the comfortable ways of the world, we must remember the covenant that Jesus has formed with us in His blood. As Jesus himself reminds us in today’s Gospel: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
Two books that I read over this past vacation make the point of this Sunday’s readings very powerfully. The first of these was called “The Bridegroom.” Written by Brant Pitre, “The Bridegroom” makes the point that in the Eucharist, Jesus is forming a New Covenant with us, His people. In this covenant, Jesus promises that He will always be faithful to us and walk with us all the way to Heaven. He does this by providing us with food and drink that satisfies to eternal life. As Jesus himself says in this Sunday’s Gospel: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus takes the Church to be His bride and promises that He will always be faithful to us. From this perspective, we can almost see every Mass as a type of nuptial banquet in which Christ promises to be faithful to us no matter what. However, just as at every wedding, and in every covenant, this is not about a relationship where one person promises something and the other needs to do nothing. As Jesus tells His disciples, we are given this bread because our work is “that you believe in the one whom he (God) has sent.”
The second set of outstanding books, which I read over my vacation, were the Prison Journals of Cardinal George Pell from Australia. He was falsely accused and imprisoned on allegations of sexual assault. Throughout his trial, many believed it was impossible for the allegations against him to be true. The judge even acknowledged this when he sentenced him. Throughout his struggles, Cardinal Pell focused on the promises that Christ had made to him through His life, death and resurrection. Cardinal Pell never lost hope in Christ’s promise to feed him at the banquet of eternal life—despite the injustice and suffering that he endured. For me, his journal was a powerful reminder about the invitation that Paul gives us in today’s second reading to always remember “the way” that we have learned from Christ. This requires, as Cardinal Pell witnesses, that in difficulties we always remain firm in prayer and turn to Christ as the friend who will always feed us and strengthen us for the journey ahead. Christ is the one true friend who will never let us down and He invites us to always turn to Him to be strengthened in our difficulties and trials.
It is difficult to think of ourselves as being in a marital convent with God. It is a humbling and awesome thought. Whether we think of the relationship this way, or not, God does. Christ reminds us of this each time He feeds us every single time we celebrate the New Covenant established and celebrated in His Body and Blood at the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Christ’s eternal pledge to us of His faithfulness and His invitation to eternal life. Jesus will always be faithful to us and will always be with us. As we celebrate this covenant each time we come to the Eucharist and are reminded of His faithfulness, we too are invited to be faithful to Him. The covenant is two ways and we are reminded this Sunday, by Christ Himself, that our part in the covenant is that we “believe in him whom he (God) has sent,” and strive to be His faithful disciples.
May God strengthen us always that we may be His faithful disciples.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor, St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto, Ontario