Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 33, “Bread of LIfe”

Dear friend from days gone by,*

What do you want from Jesus? What do you want, period? In reflecting on today’s chapter from Romano Guardini’s The Lord, “Bread of Life,” it strikes me that the questions are closely related.

In any case, what you most deeply want makes all the difference in how you see or receive Jesus. That was true for the people surrounding him 2,000 years ago, and it’s true for us—for me—today.

The Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John always seems to come up at Sunday Masses when Katie and I are in Maine in August, attending a church near our summer rental. The priest at that church seems very insightful about the four or five weekly passages that make up the discourse, and I always seem to just miss his point.

The discourse comes in John 6, after the feeding of the five thousand, when the crowd wants more food food, and Jesus offers them non-food food, namely, Himself. “I am the living bread,” he says, “and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. . . . Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The repugnance of the crowd, Guardini writes, is understandable. What Jesus is talking about sounds, for lack of a better word, like cannibalism. In our day, we have the luxury of looking at this long speech retrospectively. We Catholics see it through the Eucharist. At Mass, we consume the Body and Blood of Christ. But the crowds following Jesus around the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago didn’t have that perspective.

When they realized that he wasn’t offering them another meal, but was talking about something incomprehensible, most of them fled. The Apostles stayed, and it remained for Peter to deliver one of the most moving lines in all the Bible. When Jesus asked Peter if he and the rest of the Twelve wanted to go away like the others, Peter answered: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou has words of everlasting life, and we have come to believe and to know that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.”

Whether or not the Apostles understood the Bread of Life discourse any more than I do today, they knew that they had encountered a reality that promised to answer the deepest questions of their hearts. Guardini notes: “It is beautiful to see how Peter replies. He does not say: We understand what you mean, but: We hold fast to your hand. Your words are words of life, whether we understand them or not. At that moment it was the only answer possible [my emphasis].”

That is precisely how I felt when I left college to follow a teacher to Europe in 1970. He had the words, and I believed. Although the circumstances and the results were entirely different, it is also how I felt when I answered the call of the Catholic Church in 2007-2008. In each case I had met something that answered my need, that gave me what my heart wanted in a way that nothing else had done. And I followed it. Because otherwise, to whom should I go?

Of course, if what we want is only things of this world—food, security, success, acclaim—then all we will want from Jesus is some good advice, a leg up for self-help. We will reduce Jesus to a good teacher, a wise man, a remarkable human being. But if what we want is something beyond this world, and we want it to become part of us, then we won’t be as repulsed by the idea, even if we don’t understand it, of taking God himself into our lives, our bodies, our selves.

The answers we get from Jesus, or anything else for that matter, will only be as deep as the questions we are asking.

God bless you, my dear old friend,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 34

* This post continues a series of meditations on Romano Guardini’s book The Lord, in the form of open letters to a real friend from my days at boarding school.

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