When the Son of Man comes in his glory…then He will say, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father, and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’”
These words of Jesus, and similar words in this parable or story, are rich in meaning, and deeply appreciated by many of us. “I was hungry, and you fed me.” Christ identifies himself with all of humankind, with every one of us, in our sufferings, and in our kindnesses towards others. And he warns us that he does not find himself in those of us who turn our back on a fellow human being in need. How clear the words, how life-changing the meaning. “LORD, when did we see you hungry?” “Whatsoever you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did to Me.”
This passage, only found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, presents a glorious image of Christ as ruler of humanity. But unlike our human rulers, he is not part of an elite, removed from our daily lives, and sending out his commands for us to obey. On the contrary, He rules from within us, from being one with us, because in this vision of humanity, every human being is a member of the Body of Christ. If this is what we mean by “the kingship of Christ,” know this: it is utterly unlike any political ruler you or I have seen or read about. This is the rightful Ruler of humankind, because He is us, He is not only our “head,” but is present in and with every member, from the greatest to the least. Here is the true human Ruler, who let’s our sufferings be his sufferings, and our needs be his needs. Compared to Christ the true Ruler, every human authority and power is shown to be inadequate—not evil, not to be destroyed, but all are wanting, and sometimes to be pitied in their being “all too human.” Not so with Christ Jesus: He alone is the true Ruler, because He is Everyman written large, in each and every one of us from the moment of conception into eternity.
The title “Christ the King” is misleading, because it falls far too short of the reality of Christ. Jesus Christ the rightful Ruler, because He is one with each and with all of us. He makes Himself one with us. He has assumed our nature, and is taking us into God. In other words, Christ is divinizing us from within, and transforming us into the Kingdom of God. “Who are my brothers and sisters?”
“Whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to Me.” Those words must echo and resound in our hearts, until they form us anew. Do you want to know what God’s will is for you, for the rest of your life? “Whatsoever you did to the least…you did for Me.”
To God be glory and honor, now and forever, with thanksgiving, for He has made us One with Him. Amen.
Few of Christ’s words are so well known by Christians and non-Christians alike, and few of the sayings attributed to Christ have had such an enormous influence on Christian understanding of life, politics, and personal obligations. In its context in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), the saying is even richer and more profound than is generally realized. For most of the so-called “Christian centuries,” however, Christ’s words were used to bolster the Gelasian “doctrine of the two swords,” asserting that each human being must give respect and offerings to both the Emperor and to the Church. According to this teaching of long standing in the Church, human beings must obey and pay tribute to the Roman Emperor and to the Church, represented above all by the Pope in Rome. But Jesus did not say, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to the Church what is the Church’s." Simply put, the Church is not God, the Pope is not Christ, and placing the institutional Church or hierarchs in the position of God is spiritually and politically wrong and dangerous. Nor did Christ intend to fossilize the Roman Emperor into an authority to be ever respected and obeyed; he knew well that all human powers and authorities pass away in time. Jesus was not impressed with the power of Rome, nor with any human authority, civil or religious. So what is the intent of this gospel passage, and what might Christ be saying to us through it?
To interpret these words of Christ, or anyone’s words properly, one must always take into account the context in which they were spoken. In the case of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” as presented in the Gospels, the context is that of a trap being set for Jesus by Pharisees and Herodians—that is, by the super-pious, self-righteous ones and by the cynical, secular souls of the power elites. These groups hated Jesus, and sought ways to destroy him. Why? He provoked them by his wisdom and his radical reliance on God alone, and Christ challenged everything about their empty lives. Jesus was more than a thorn in their side; they experienced him as a source of destruction for all that they held dear: for the rigorous interpretation of the Law exalted by Pharisees, for pious self-righteousness, and for the power-loving spiritual emptiness of the “powers that be,” represented by the clique around King Herod (“Herodians”). Their question is a genuine search for truth, but a clever trap set to bring down the naked power of Rome on the head of Jesus—to have him killed as a political revolutionary: “Now, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answers affirmatively, “Yes, one must pay taxes,” then the masses who revere him as a true Man of God will be turned off by his conniving with the hated Roman oppressors. If Jesus answers, “No, do not pay taxes to Caesar, a false god,” then these clever connivers will turn Christ over to Rome for teaching open disobedience and rebellion. And Pilate was all too eager to crucify another rebellious Jew to protect Roman power.
I will save for this week’s homily some fuller comments on Christ’s brilliant answer, and how he side-stepped their trap—and trapped them. Suffice it to note now that Jesus turned the tables onto his slick-wicked opponents, and trapped the rigorous Pharisees in their false-consciousness: they were not truly worshipping God, but money, power, Caesar, and self. For he asked his would-be trappers to bring him a coin, and they produced one quickly, perhaps out of their money bag. Then Jesus asked them a question: “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” They knew well: “Caesar’s.” These men could readily recognize the image of the Emperor, and his name on money, but they could not recognize the Image of God standing right in front of them. The reason these men hated Jesus and sought to trap him was because they were spiritually blind and wicked: their shrunken souls could recognize Caesar and his image on money, but they could not recognize the Presence of God in Jesus Christ—God’s Image in Christ, and in every human being they met. “Blind guides” indeed.
Practical upshot: If the Emperor or the “powers that be” demand your money, pay your taxes. It is just money. And cheating on taxes is wrong and immoral. But give to God what is God’s—your heart, mind, and soul. And one’s faith and love of God are genuine if and only if one recognizes and respects the Image of the living God in every human being one meets. “And who is my neighbor?” asks a man trying to avoid God’s Image in human beings. To whom do you owe respect, kindness, charity, and truth? To Christ, and to every member of his Body—that is, to every one you meet.
Autumn, harvest time. In German, the word for autumn is “Herbst,” a word cognate with our word “harvest” (English is a west German language, after all). The readings for these two weeks have at least one clear theme, developed in various autumnal colors: God is looking for a fruitful harvest from his people. And that means: from you, from me. You and I must “bring God’s Kingdom” by faithfully and loving doing what is good, and “speaking the truth from the heart.”
Three of our Gospels often place on Jesus’ lips the symbol, “the Kingdom of God,” or in Matthew’s equivalent, “the Kingdom of heaven.” (As a devout Jew, St. Matthew did not want to take the sacred name of God on his lips, lest he sin). We find in these three Gospels “parables of the Kingdom.” The “Kingdom” is not some earthly ordering of affairs, not “heaven,” not “the Church.” These are three common and widespread misunderstandings of Jesus’ symbol. The phrase is not used by Jesus in St. John’s Gospel; rather, there Jesus speaks of “eternal life,” which does not mean “afterlife,” but “God’s life,” and our life as lived in union with what we call “God.” The “Kingdom of God” means, at various times, God’s Presence among human beings; God’s way of doing things; the mind of the Almighty (His plan for all creation); God’s life shared with his creatures; and so on. It is an extremely rich symbol, but one easily misunderstood. Just keep in mind: wherever you see goodness, beauty, truth, and justice, you are seeing what Jesus points to as “the Kingdom of God” being realized here and now.
Apparently, Jesus agrees with the anonymous prophet known as “Second Isaiah” (chapter 40-55 of Isaiah): “God’s ways are not our ways.” Whereas we expect God to reward those who deserve greater rewards more richly, in the parables we hear this week and next, we are assured that God acts as He wills, and is not limited by our expectations or sense of justice. “Are you envious because I am generous?” Who are we to complain if God chooses to lavish his richest blessings on those who are tardy, who turn their lives over to God even late in life? No one can earn God’s favor; it is freely and generously given.
Clearly, what God is waiting for, and seeking to bring about, is a wholehearted response in each of us, which will “bear fruit richly for the Kingdom.” Those who are slack or lazy or prefer to spend their lives playing around with their toys and games accomplish little good, and do not help to further “God’s way of doing things.” Those who are diligent to use whatever skills, gifts, talents they have for the spiritual and material benefits of others are “children of the Light,” or “sons and daughters of God." Do not be fooled: those who do good, and do it generously, are agents of God’s Kingdom, whether they attend church or not, are ministers or not, or whether they “believe” or not. What God wants is a loving response to His ways, not lip service, and surely not churchy pretense.
Not just our actions, but our inner attitudes must be in harmony with God’s ways, rather than those of covetous or grasping human beings, who are “anxious and troubled about many things.” We hear Christ’s Apostle tell his disciples, “Have no anxiety about anything,” but trust in God and give him thanks. “And then the peace of God, which surprises all understanding,” will keep our hearts and minds in Christ—that is, centered in God’s heart, in God’s Kingdom. The peace that God gives is “the fruit of righteousness,” the inner reward to a human being who does not just “believe,” but who puts into practice what the LORD teaches us in word and by the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. Rightful action and the renunciation of evil and selfish ways brings one into God’s peace.
And if anything looks and feels like the Kingdom of God on earth, it is the heart and soul of a man or woman who simply, quietly, energetically does the will of God—cooperates with the Spirit, who “blows where he wills.” As Jesus prayed before being tortured to death: “Not my will, but your will be done.” And consider the enormous, bountiful harvest of Christ’s righteous deeds, even unto death. So it is in those who live God’s Kingdom here and now.
Jesus searchingly asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The episode in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) in which Jesus asks this questions occurs within a fairly long and complex narrative. For our present purpose—which is more for meditation or reflexion—I will not engage in a scholarly interpretation, but bring out some of the meanings which the evangelist seems to be intending. In other words, why does Matthew report this question with its context? What is he saying to us, and why? Homilies this week-end and next will present, I hope, more insights into Christ’s Question than can be offered here.
A master teacher asks a probing question to guide his hearer, his disciple. Christ is the master Teacher and the master questioner. He does not crank out facile answers, but leaves his hearers wondering and seeking the truth by means of questions and provocative stories—often, in his justly famous parables. Heard well and properly, the parables lead one to make a firm decision for or against God. The questions open up a mind to reality, to being examined and searched by God: “Why you are afraid? Don’t you have faith?” “How long have I been with you, and yet you do not know me?” “When the Son of Man returns, will he find any faith on earth?” And today’s great question, the decisive one: “Who do you say that I am?” The answer we give is the life we live—or seek to live.
Jesus is not looking for “the right answer,” for a correct, churchy formulation, such as “You are the Second Person of the Trinity,” or “You are true God and true man,” or even “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” The formulas may be true enough, within the limits of words, and if properly understood; but Christ is looking for far more than words: He is seeking to cause a revelation. Yes, Jesus Christ has come to us, not to cause a revolution in society, but to provoke a revelation in his hearer. By his question, Christ is verbally laying his hand on the heart of his disciples, and seeking to pull back the veil that keeps them from seeing the truth of reality. He does not credit this divine action of unveiling or revealing to himself, but He credits the working of the unknown God, through the word of Christ, in the depth of his hearer’s heart: “No human being has revealed this to you, but my Father.” “The Father” is Jesus’ name for the unknown God, the depths of divinity beyond anything that can be known, felt, seen, experienced in any way. Beyond the Christ who questions you, is the unbounded One, that which simply is, the I AM.
The I AM indeed: for what “the angel of the LORD (Yahweh)” does to Moses at the burning bush, Jesus is now doing in the minds and hearts of his chosen disciples. The kind of response Moses gives to the Presence is extremely rare in human history, and so it is even among the disciples of Christ. For only one man speaks up, only one enters into the divine-human dialogue which Jesus instigates. The other 11 disciples remain silent; whether or not their minds have been unveiled on this occasion, we do not know. Perhaps, at this point, their inner hearts remain veiled. Why? The mystery of divine election (choice) is at work. Christ invited each man to open up to the truth of who he is, but on this occasion, only one responds, only one enters into the process of revelation. Jesus acknowledges this revolution of revelation: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for no human being revealed this to you, but my Father. And I tell you, you are Petros (Peter, Rocky), and on this rock foundation (petra), I will build my Community.” On what foundation is the community of Christ founded? Not on the man Peter or on any particular human being, but on the process of revelation in a human being—on the unveiling that takes place, not in a book or in an institution, but in a human being.
In you, in me, either the unveiling of our heart takes place to see and to communicate with the living God in Christ, or it does not. What matters is not information, but formation: One must be formed by Christ’s word, and respond with a quiet openness that allows the unknown God to pull back the veil covering the human heart from divine reality. When the unveiling occurs, then one enters into “the Kingdom of God,” that is, then one lives in God and for God. And that is a real spiritual revolution.
Perhaps to save time during our divine liturgies (Mass), the readings selected for our hearing are often highly abbreviated, often neglecting their original context. As heard at Mass, these readings have some meaning, and some spiritual value for the person who is attentive and thinks about what was proclaimed. It would be far better if our parishioners were accustomed to reading the entire passage from which the abbreviated reading was drawn, but rarely have I heard of anyone making the effort. Still, I recommend the practice: read the excerpted passage in context.
The story of Elijah on Mount Horeb, which we hear read at Mass this week-end (the first reading appointed for the 19th Sunday of ordinary time, Year A) is so truncated that much of the intended meaning and significance is lost. On the other hand, the few sentences which we hear read are rich in meaning, for one who makes the effort to understand them and apply them to his or her own spiritual life. Again, I must wonder: How many of our parishioners make this kind of effort? In truth, I do not know, but few usually admit to “hearing the word” in what was read or proclaimed. If we are not attentive to the stirring of the silent Word, how do we tune in to God?
The excerpt is from chapter 19 of I Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures, and is part of the Elijah cycle which has been preserved for many centuries. Although chapter 19 does not stand alone, at least if one reads it closely, one should gain insights into what the anonymous author of the text is trying to communicate to his readers. Indeed, without reading the chapter in the original Hebrew, but in several respectable English translations, much comes across: chapter 19 of I Kings is, among other things, a profound insight into healthy spirituality. At the same time, it eclipses and surpasses the kinds of interpretations that one can receive from the stories of Moses on Mount Sinai. (Note: Sinai and Horeb are the same mountain, as named differently by the two Israelite kingdoms). Or in other words, the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb tells us what is especially significant in the Book of Exodus’ account of Moses on Mount Sinai. In reading the story of the Exodus, it is easy to become fascinated by the spectacular, and miss the “sound of silence,” the darkness and quiet in which God communicates Himself to Moses. It is precisely this kind of communion with the unknown God that comes to the fore in the story of Elijah on Horeb.
The prophet Elijah bears his name meaning “Yahweh is my God.” Elijah is the true successor to Moses—not the kings of Israel and Judah, and not various religious voices and practices that led the Chosen People into worship of false gods. What is at stake is the truth of God and the truth of human existence under and in God. The people have been led astray, deceived by the failed institutions of kingship and priesthood. The prophet Elijah becomes the one place where God breaks in and acts decisively—not a Temple or a king, however exalted. Elijah fled to Horeb, driven by his fear of death as threatened by Queen Jezebel; out of fear Elijah loses sight of his vocation as prophet. So in fear Elijah fled into the wilderness—away from political and priestly institutions—and sat to rest under a broom bush—a reference back to the bush out of which God addressed Moses in “the burning bush.” But now the angel of the LORD sends Elijah on a 40-day journey up to “the Mountain of God,” Horeb / Sinai.
On Mount Sinai / Horeb, Elijah hears the word of the LORD addressing him with the penetrating question:`Why are you here, Elijah?’” The fleeing prophet responds: “I am moved by zeal for Yahweh, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” “Come out,” Yahweh called, “and stand on the mountain before YHWH.” And then “the LORD passed by,” with mighty wind, earthquake, and fire, but Yahweh was in none of these. “And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound [or, a still, small voice]. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantel about his face and went and stood at the entrance of the cave” (I Kgs 19, New JPS translation).
After telling several parables to his disciples, Jesus asks, “Do you understand all these things?” “Yes,” they replied, in their all-too-quick fashion. In truth, has anyone really understood well and completely the meaning of Christ’s parables of the kingdom? One understands by living them well. Whom do we know who has lived the gospel well, but Christ Jesus, and his blessed Mother—and various saints, all to some imperfect yet beautiful degree. As Origen wrote (184-253 AD): “Jesus is himself the Kingdom.” Do you know of a better Kingdom of God than the fullness of God’s presence in Jesus Christ, and hence to a degree, in us, the body of Christ?
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” Jesus shows us what is of ultimate value or worth in human life: discovering God in Him, loving Him, following Him, obeying Him, rejoicing in Him. “My happiness lies in God alone,” sings the Psalmist, who has found in God alone his pearl of infinite value. Whoever finds God, finds the Pearl of great price. Whoever does not find God, however rich or powerful, comes up empty.
But here is the uniqueness of finding God: the One who is found is found to be ever with, in, and beyond the one finding. The God who is found is utterly inexhaustible, a spring of pure water ever flowing up out of the depths of the unseen earth. “The one who seeks, finds.” And the person who truly finds finds that he must keep seeking, as St. Anselm teaches. And he must keep loving following, obeying, or what he has found will be lost again. It is not that this Pearl of great price is slippery, like an eel; rather, we are inconstant, unsteady in our love affair with the all-loving One. And so we must seek to fall in love again and again—just as two married folks must keep striving to love each other ever afresh, here and now, and not say with Pushkin: “I loved you once, I love you still—perhaps.” That is not love, nor is it the way of life for one who keeps falling in love with the God who “loved His own in the world, and loved them to the End” (John 13).
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new; late have I loved You. Behold you were with me, but I was not with you.You were within, but I was without, spending myself on these things that ultimately do not satisfy, and would not be at all if You did not will them to be.” The true lover of God, like St. Augustine in his Confessionsparaphrased here, knows that he has “only just begun,” and in truth does not love as he knows and wants to love. And yet, even to taste, even to begin to live God in Christ, the Pearl of infinite value, one begins to leave the world of passing things and enter into communion with that which simply is.
“He who begins to love begins to leave. Many there are who are leaving Babylon, and yet they do not know it. And yet they are leaving by the affections of their heart” (Augustine on the Psalms). “Ubi caritas et amor, Dei ibi est.” “Where charity and love are, there is God.” One who loves has indeed found the Pearl of great price, “the many-splendored thing.”
Coming attractions at our week-end Masses: For the next three week-ends, we will hear three “parables of the Kingdom” from Matthew 13; then on 6 August, the Feast of the Transfiguration; then the following week, the story of Jesus walking on the water. All of this material is highly significant not only within the New Testament and early Christianity, but through the centuries, and in the life of the Church. My task will be to take each lesson as it comes, and seek to help make it meaningful for our parishioners. We will try to understand the LORD’s teaching together. It is not easily understandable, because Christ is leading us into the mystery of God; or rather, into a life well lived in tension toward the unknown God whom he calls “my Father.” As I have often done, we must move towards a true understanding dialectically: that is, warding off misunderstandings, and using misinterpretations to help us arrive at a deeper or better grasp of what Christ is telling us here and now. One learns to discern the truth by seeing and breaking from error. This process is never-ending, because our minds are limited, our understanding always fallible. The search for the truth of God is always greater than, and encompasses, any results one discovers along the way. If one is not seeking, wondering, exploring, then one is stagnating.
There is nothing stagnant about the “Kingdom of God.” This symbolic phrase, used by Jesus to speak about the reality and ways of God in our lives, is dynamic, creative, freeing, challenging, demanding, consoling, guiding. It is, among other things, a way to speak about God’s providential care for his creatures, for us. God’s way of doing things is not identical with our ways. Whereas human beings gravitate to the powerful, the famous, the wealthy, God’s way is to seek out the lost, the lowly, the humble, those rejected by fellow human beings. Whereas we human beings seek status, wealth, or power, the Kingdom of God—God’s way of acting—is life-giving, affirming, able to “tear down the mighty and lift up the lowly.” (Are you lowly enough to be reached by God?).
God’s way brings judgment only to bring peace, to heal, never to condemn and lock up in a hell of human imagination.
Human beings seek to be happy, to know the truth, to do good. In this quest we find fulfillment and happiness. A life of mere pleasure-seeking, of constant entertainment, of restless money-making, of power-seeking, will not bring one happiness or truth, and will not help one become a truly good human being.
To the best of my knowledge, three different and especially profound ways to live well and happily have emerged in human history: life under God as explored by Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and the saints; the discovery of reason and the search for wisdom and happiness as lived and taught by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and their philosopher-disciples; and the way of the Buddha with the search for inner calm and insight. To these three irreplaceable ways one should also add the works of science and scholarship that may usefully contribute to one’s search for happiness and truth. (Historically, western science is an offshoot of Greek philosophy.).
In my judgement, one seeking to live happily, and to understand the truth about man’s place in reality, should have recourse to Judaeo-Christian spirituality; to reason and the life of the mind that is philosophy; to meditative practices as developed within the Buddhist tradition; and to the best insights from science. There are other spiritual traditions that are very rich indeed, and no doubt one can draw spiritual nourishment from them (such as from Hinduism, the Tao, or from native American spirituality). One way or another, four enormous figures of human history keep presenting themselves in my search: Moses as the carrier of the I AM; Jesus as the human being fully immersed in God; Socrates and the unending quest for truth by means of right reasoning, with its openness to divine reality; the Buddha and the quest for inner peace and freedom from suffering.
As I look back on my life, and consider how to spend time remaining for me on earth, these figures keep emerging as demanding my attention and study. Moses is known primarily through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the Law, and in the Chosen People; Jesus is known through the same scriptures, but above all in lovingly doing the will of God and in the lives of His saintly people; Socrates is known through right reasoning, and especially as embodied in the texts of Plato and Aristotle, and their learned disciples through the ages; and the Buddha is known through his teaching, (the Buddha-dhamma), and through diligently practicing mindfulness-meditation.
The ways of the prophets, of Jesus, of Socrates, and of the Buddha, are not identical, nor can they be unthinkingly harmonized or “syncretized.” Each of these ways is valid, and requires a committed life. To give an example of an enormous tension between them—a tension demanding much study and thought—Moses and Jesus lead one into the mystery we call “God.” Socrates, open to all truth, respects “the gods” and God, but employs reason as moved through an inner dialogue with divine reality as it presents itself to consciousness. The Buddha is consistently non-theistic, avoiding all speculation on the gods, and any explicit reliance on divine help in the search for inner peace.
For years I have allowed my faith in God and Christ to be illumined through the life of reason as developed by Socrates and the best human minds who have written philosophy. On this path I have very far to go, but I found reliable models, as in St. Anselm, with his “faith seeking understanding.” The more difficult challenge is to explore and live more fully the mutual penetration of the way of Christ and the way of the Buddha. While being true to the God of Moses and of Jesus Christ, and true to right reasoning, I must seek to practice meditation as guided not only by Christian mystics and saints, but by Buddhist meditators. Only in meditative practice, and in right living, can one gain insight into how living faith in God, the life of reasoning, and the Buddhistic way of “being lights unto yourselves” are essentially one, or harmonize. For all that is true is good, and worth seeking.
One must live the truth to understand it. Otherwise, one is merely speculating and playing intellectual games—an enormous problem in our culture and in mass education today. The light of Christ, of Socrates, and of the Buddha all reveal our culture and contemporary ways of living as deeply flawed and self-destructive. In the question of Jesus, “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and lose his life?” In the Socratic insight, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And in the light of the Buddha, “To cross the stream of life, bale out this boat!”
"Do this in memory of me.” Do what in memory of whom? Jesus said: “Whenever you eat my Body, and Drink my blood, do it in memory of me.” Why did Jesus say this at “the Last Supper?” Was he being selfish telling us to remember him?
In general, it is good and enriching to remember the noble deeds and characteristic actions of truly good human beings. The action of Jesus which he tells us to remember is first of all what he did at his last meal before being crucified. Knowing what was about to take place, Jesus took bread, gave thanks to God, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples to eat. The action itself, in the context of the Passover meal, is clearly rooted both in the Exodus event and in Jewish family meals and prayers. And then in a similar way, after supper, Jesus lifted up the cup of wine, gave thanks to God, and asked his disciples to drink from the one cup. Again, the action befits the Passover, the celebration of the LORD God leading His people, through Moses, from captivity in Egypt to freedom under God. Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine in the context of the Passover meal as a memorial for keeping his disciples mindful of what Christ did for each and for all. He makes of us an Exodus people: human beings on a journey through death-in-self into the sheer peace and freedom of God.
The prayer and sharing of the bread and wine, with the command to “do this in memory of me,” are not rooted in themselves, nor do they point simply to themselves. Rather, they direct our minds directly to Jesus Christ and to what he did for us and for all in his ultimate self-giving act of love, even unto death by the brutal torture of crucifixion. Christ established what he called “the new covenant in my blood” through his life-giving death on the cross; and he established the memorial for the new covenant at the Passover Last Supper. Jesus used the rich meaning of the Passover to throw light on his suffering unto death for us, and to show us the way to the new Exodus into God.
Christ is teaching us, among other things, that the God who led His people out of bondage in Egypt through Moses is now leading his disciples from the bondage of sin and death into life eternal in God. This is the new Exodus. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” as the Apostle Paul explains.The evangelist John similarly turns the life-giving action of Christ into a lesson for every disciple: “As I have done for you, so you also must do for one another.” And what must one do for each other? Give oneself up in love to bring each other into union with God.
Is this explanation of “Do this in memory of me” too familiar, and perhaps too superficial? Familiar it is. But let’s bear in mind that the depth of the meaning comes not from the words used to interpret Christ’s Eucharistic gift to us. Whatever real depth of meaning is in the Eucharist comes from the depth of Christ’s love, which surely is in the mystery of God—in the mystery of the divine abyss. We may peer into this abyss, but not see. Love alone understands love. Only to the extent that one “goes and does likewise,” that one is self-giving as Christ is self-giving, can one truly understand the Eucharistic feast. The man, woman, or child, who comes to the table /altar of the Lord, and humble and lovingly surrenders “all that I am, all that I have,” is the one who has a genuine understanding of the Eucharist. “Just as I am, without one plea…”
“Do this in memory of me.” Do what in memory of Christ? Ultimately, the entire orientation of our lives ought to be “in memory of Me,” in a faith-union with the Christ who “humbled himself, and became obedient into death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2). As we consciously remember who Christ is, and what He has done for us and for all, and as we put into daily practice his abandonment of a self-centered life in all of its forms for the good of others, then we truly are living “in memory of Me.”
"Symbol” comes from the Greek word symbolein,literally meaning “to throw together,” or “to bring together.” Symbols united reality. In the case of our language about God, symbols are intended to bring together the divine and the human. Despite claims in popular culture, God and humankind are not identical: one is the cause, the other is an effect of that cause; the divine is wholly free from space-time, whereas we human beings exist in space-time. To communicate anything about divine reality, symbols are needed. And among these symbols are words, or language symbols, as well as gestures, art, and music. Symbols are needed for mind to communicate with mind.
All of our language about Jesus is symbolic, and needs to be properly interpreted. A mind must search for the meaning intended by another mind. To understand the meaning of word symbols requires mental effort. Most of us have learned that many people put insufficient effort into seeking to understand someone’s meaning. Often we think we understand the words of another, but we do not, or we “do not know as we ought to know,” using St. Paul’s phrase. The evangelists employed language symbols to communicate to ancient readers the truth and beauty of their experience of “life in Christ Jesus.” These writers felt so much joy and spiritual renewal through their union with God in Christ, that they wanted to share their joy, and did so by writing down their thoughts and circulating them. The evangelist John, a master in the use of language symbols, has Christ Jesus declare: “I have come that you may have Life—Life more abundantly.” Clearly that is the evangelist’s experience of what he has found through faith-union with Christ.
One must seek to understand word-symbols in light of the experiences of the one speaking or writing. As any adult knows, the word “love” has vastly different meanings, depending on the one using the word, on the occasion, on the intention of the one speaking. One way that the evangelist John sought to communicate his experience of Christ was by using the Jewish symbol of God as the good shepherd, as in the 23rd psalm, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want….” The evangelist experienced himself being guided, tended, shepherded by God in and through his faith-response to Christ. In calling Jesus “the Good Shepherd,” the evangelist tells us that he experiences the love and providential care of God in and through the Resurrected Christ. “I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you,” John writes, speaking for the Resurrected. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.” “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.” All such expressions written by the evangelist John testify to his experience of God through his loving faith-union with the Risen Christ.
And whom, we may ask, does God shepherd in Christ? A reasonable answer would be: everyone who allows God to rule and to guide him into true Life. Potentially, this includes every human being. But each of us has discovered in ourselves an ability to turn away, to rebel, or simply to ignore the silent, subtle promptings of God as he seeks to shepherd us. We are not likened to sheep because we are wise, prudent, and understanding, but because we “often go astray like sheep,” to use the language of Deutero-Isaiah. (Perhaps we can even at times be justly likened to mules, “who must be driven to pasture by blows.” Can you ever be like a mule?)
To call Christ “the good shepherd” is a way of saying that he is the rightful, just ruler over humankind—over and in all human beings potentially, and actually over those who submit to his gentle and wise rule. All who “do the will of my Father” belong to Christ. Ultimately, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, Christ is the head over all of humanity. He is not the head of one group only, or of some “elected” or “saved” individual beings, but over each and all of us, from the beginning of history to the end. That is why we call Christ “LORD.” He is the beginning and end of each one of us, and of all of us together. To you, to me, to everyone, the Risen One says: “You are mine. I have given my life for you, so that you may know true love, peace, and happiness.” Such is Jesus, “the good shepherd.”