I know that as a Franciscan, I should say Assisi. But in all honesty, if there was one place in the world that I could go, I would pick Capernaum. The archaeologists (some of them Franciscan friars, who are the caretakers for the site) say that the ruins of the synagogue that stand there today lay atop the ruins of an older synagogue, possibly the one that Jesus preached in. The second half of this chapter of John’s gospel takes place at that site. I would cherish the opportunity to visit that place, stand in those ruins, and read Jesus’ words about being the “Bread of Life” in the location where they were actually spoken.
The only thing better than walking in the footsteps of Francis is walking in the footsteps of Jesus Himself?
Putting yourself in the scene couldn’t get much better than that.
I had more difficulty than usual choosing a verse to concentrate on for this reflection. The section of this chapter entitled Jesus, The Bread of Life, lasts a full 35 verses. The difficulty comes because John feels the need to repeat himself over and over again in order to convey the importance of his theme. It’s almost as if John can’t help himself. He seems to know instinctively that he can’t adequately convey the depth of the mystery he is presenting. Maybe, just maybe, if he repeats the same thing over and over again, in slightly different words each time, one of the phrases will take hold.
I’ll leave it to you to pick the one that works best for you.
John Chapter 6, Verse 33:
“For the Bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives Life to the world.”
John Chapter 6, Verse 35:
“I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
John Chapter 6, Verse 40:
“For my Father’s Will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have Eternal Life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
John Chapter 6, Verses 48-50:
“I am the Bread of Life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the Bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.”
John Chapter 6, Verse 51:
“I am the Living Bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this Bread, he will Live forever. This Bread is my Flesh, which I will give for the Life of the world.”
John Chapter 6, Verse 54:
“Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has Eternal Life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
John Chapter 6, Verses 55-57:
“For my Flesh is real food and my Blood is real drink. Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the Living Father sent me and I Live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will Live because of me.”
John Chapter 6, Verse 58:
“This is the Bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this Bread will Live forever.”
Three things linked together essentially the same way eight different times in the space of 35 verses.
Jesus as Son. Jesus as Bread. Jesus as the source of Eternal Life.
There must be something very important going on here even if it’s not quite revealed and explained by the words themselves.
If we have difficulty understanding, we are not alone. Scattered in these verses we find the Jews grumbling a couple times about Jesus claiming to be “the Bread of Life that came down from heaven.” Then later they argue about “how can this man give us his Flesh to eat?” And then the section after this is entitled Many Disciples Desert Jesus. They leave because “this is a hard teaching, who can accept it?”
As in Chapter 5, John is again out of sync here with the three synoptic Gospels. Each of those give us a version of the Last Supper. But John does not. He gives us Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, but he skips over the meal itself entirely. His teaching on the Eucharistic occurs here, in this chapter, and it is much different than what is presented in the synoptics. They give us the institution of the Eucharistic without much reference to the mystery. John is focused on the mystery, but even his words can’t seem to do it justice.
I can’t just read it, understand it and move on.
I am left to ponder in prayer and meditation. What does it mean to consume the Body of Christ?
So, at this stage I find myself in need of making a confession.
I wrote the first draft of this reflection and did not like it at all. I let it sit for a day and pondered it while I was out and about. And I discovered, after thinking about it for not very long at all, that I had very little understanding of what the words “Bread of Life” mean. And I have even less ability to write words that conveyed what I might think I understand.
After thinking a little more, I decided that it was very audacious of me to suggest in the opening that I knew what John was thinking as he wrote. I left my introduction as it was just so you can see how ridiculous I was being. Who am I, after all, to think that I might be able to read the mind of John? All I really have done is project my shortcomings on him, most likely a very unwise thing to do.
And then after thinking about it just a little longer, I decided that John probably knew exactly what he was writing. The failure in understanding is not with him, but with me. If I was not such a grand sinner, which I will I expound on some before I finish, then maybe I might have a chance to grasp the meaning of this Gospel. Perhaps someday, when I am much wiser and older, I might have a chance. But today, being the sinner that I am, I have to admit that it is beyond me.
Of course, that leaves me with a bit of a predicament. I still have to write something for you to reflect on.
So I turn to Francis. I remember how he was prone to taking the gospel quite literally and how that worked for him. And then I look again at the selections from Francis’ writing that I had picked to share. And I decide to let Francis speak for the both of us.
I am sure that Francis understood much better than I do what John was trying to convey. But in his wisdom what he hands down to us has very little explanation in it. Instead of trying to explain anything, Francis just embraces the instruction of Jesus wholeheartedly and then gives way to his passion. His passion then gives understanding separate from intellectual exercise. It’s a grace that’s largely absent in the world I occupy, a grace that I can easily envy, a grace I desperately need to balance out my need to analyze and know.
Is Francis more passionate about any other subject anywhere in his writings? I’m not sure he could be. Read these beautiful words from A Letter to the Entire Order about Jesus present on the altar a couple times and just try and keep your soul from stirring!
Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God is present on the altar in the hands of a priest! O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, So humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under an ordinary piece of bread! Brothers, look at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before Him! Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by Him! Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally!
The beauty and the sincerity are simply astonishing, aren’t they? My need for explanation just melts away. If a Saint like Francis can believe so passionately, then I no longer even want to know the theological arguments and details. I just want to experience enough grace to believe unconditionally as he did.
Hear the echo from his disciple, Thomas of Celano, in chapter 152 of The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul. Note him following the example of Francis as he also emphasizes the merciful nature of Jesus in the Eucharist. Over and over and over again, Jesus comes to us unconditionally, never holding anything of Himself back, always available to reinforce, enhance and achieve our redemption. As with Francis, Thomas calls on us to give back the same, to hold nothing of ourselves back in response to the generous and abundant mercy of Jesus.
Toward the sacrament of the Lord’s Body he burned with fervor to his very marrow and with unbounded wonder of that loving condescension and condescending love. He considered it disrespectful not to hear, if time allowed, at least one Mass a day. He received Communion frequently and so devoutly that he made others devout. Following that which is so venerable with all reverence he offered the sacrifice of all his members, and receiving the Lamb that was slain he slew his own spirit in the fire which always burned upon the altar of his heart.
How could a passionate giving way of our own not be a proper response to Jesus present on the altar?
If you are versed in Francis just a little bit, you know that he held priests in special regard. This is precisely because of the special role they play in making Jesus present for the rest of us. In his Testament, he goes so far as to call them “his lords.”
Afterwards the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests who live according to the rite of the holy Roman Church because of their orders that, were they to persecute me, I would still want to have recourse to them ……….. And I desire to respect, love and honor them and all others as my lords. And I do not want to consider any sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my lords. And I act in this way because, in this world, I see nothing corporally of the most high Son of God except His most holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others.
And yet, there is one situation where Francis does not hesitate to call them to task. Francis feels so strongly about the Eucharist that, when he perceives a lack of reverence on the part of some priests, he is compelled to write an Exhortation to the Clergy, which is one part admonishment and one part encouragement for those priests who are guilty of a lack of care and/or respect in how they handle the Eucharist.
Let all of us, clergymen, consider the great sin and the ignorance some have toward the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ ……….. Let all those who administer such most holy mysteries, however, especially those who administer them illicitly, consider how very dirty are the chalices, corporals and altar-linens upon which His Body and Blood are sacrificed. It is placed and left in many dirty places, carried about unbecomingly, received unworthily, and administered to others without discernment ……….. Let us, therefore, amend our ways quickly and firmly ……….. And whoever does not do so, let him know he must render an accounting on the day of judgment before our Lord Jesus Christ.
Francis may think of priests as “his lords,” but Jesus supercedes. Once He is corporally present on the altar, once He is actually physically present to us in the Eucharistic, then nothing else really matters, does it? The priest who brings him to the altar should be aware of the great miracle that he has been privileged to help accomplish. That task should make him reverent beyond all other considerations. He holds Jesus Himself in his hands! In the face of that, it’s not surprising that Francis does not hesitate to upbraid “his lords” on behalf of “The Lord” when they become complacent about caring for “His most Holy Body and Blood.”
If you are aware of the patterns of these reflections, you know that I am always looking for a way to tie the SFO Rule to the reflection. As usual, I went looking in the Rule for what it has to say about the Eucharist, but I must tell you that in this instance I was a little disappointed.
Francis is so passionate in the above. And yet the Rule does not even devote an entire article to the Eucharistic. Read again the passage that starts with “Let everyone be struck with fear.” Then read article Five from the Rule and see if you agree with me? Is the passion of Francis conveyed here? Is this an adequate indication of how we should approach the Eucharist?
Secular Franciscans, therefore, should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity. The faith of St. Francis, who often said “I see nothing bodily of the Most High Son of God in this world except his most holy body and blood,” should be the inspiration and pattern of their Eucharistic life.
Most High is capitalized, but Most Holy is not? Body and Blood are also not capitalized even though they are in the original? There just does not seem to be the same punch in the Rule as there is in the direct writings of St. Francis, at least to me.
Thankfully, there is one spot in the Rule where the importance of the Eucharistic to Francis comes through. In the Introduction, Francis’ Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance is given to us verbatim. There we can again glean the passion of Francis on the subject. It has two chapters, one about “Those Who Do Penance,” the other about those who do not. (Note that “Body and Blood” are back to being capitalized.)
From Chapter One:
All those who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with their whole strength and love their neighbors as themselves, who hate their bodies with their vices and sins, who receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who produce worthy fruits of penance. O how happy and blessed are these men and women while they do such things and persevere in doing them……..
From Chapter Two:
All those men and women who are not living in penance, who do not receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who practice vice and sin and walk after evil concupiscence and the evil desires of their flesh, who do not observe what they have promised the Lord, and who in their body serve the world through the desires of the flesh, the concerns of the world and the cares of this life. They are held captive by the devil, whose children they are, and whose works they do.
At first, the references to “the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ” almost seem out of place.
Francis mostly gives generalizations about what constitutes good and bad behavior. What does it mean to “produce worthy fruits of penance” or to “in your body serve the world through the desires of the flesh?” You have to go into the details to make decisions about what to do and what to avoid if you want to follow the advice that Francis is giving.
But not so where the Eucharist is concerned. Here is a very specific action to take. “Receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ!” if you want to be “happy and blessed.” And if you decide not to, then expect to be “held captive by the devil,” even if you do everything else right.
Here again, Francis is not caught up in the theological arguments about the meaning behind the “Bread of Life.” Jesus said “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” What else do we need to know? Isn’t that enough in and of itself, separate from whatever deeper meanings might be found, to get us to act?
The core writings by and about Francis may not record any detailed theological explanations of the mystery of the Eucharist. They may not contain the word transubstantiation or any synonyms for it. But there can be no doubting Francis’ position and passion when it comes to the Eucharist.
Jesus is made physically present on the altar. And we better consume His Body and Blood, no questions asked, if we know what’s good for us. As gospel followers and people of penance, it really is that simple.
First, do what Jesus said to do!
Then, if you are prone as I am to making things complicated by searching for the deeper hidden meanings behind what He said, that’s ok. But, as we discussed last chapter, don’t let it distract you from the simple and humble need to be obedient.
I have to end with another confession, this one much more serious and grave. You see, the harsh words that Francis had for the priests who become complacent about the Eucharist apply to my entire Eucharistic life as I remember it. I can never recall being properly reverent as I hold the body of Christ in my hands before I consume it. It’s as if my hands are as dirty as the linens Francis was complaining about. This is why I described myself above as a great sinner. It’s why I should not be surprised at my lack of enlightenment as I read this chapter of John.
I read the words of Francis and I know they condemn me. I know that I have no choice but to be immediately converted by those words. My approach to the Eucharist has to improve, has to become more reverent, has to become more celebratory and has to become more life receiving.
I don’t want to accuse you, but I invite you to look deep into your heart. If you find yourself guilty as I find myself guilty, please give serious thought to the passion that our father Francis displays in the words I have quoted above. Think about whether or not your approach to the “Most Holy Body and Blood” might not be a spot where you can make a deep conversion in your life straight away.
Other than the introduction and the verses and the passages I quoted, my entire first draft of this reflection was discarded from the point where I made my first confession. I am grateful that I was able to accept the inadequacy of that first draft and that I did not let it pass as it was. I am, as always, deeply caught up in my worldly responsibilities and I could have easily let this go. I could have increased my sinfulness by following the path in the second portion of Francis’ Exhortation.
Instead, as part of this reflection, I was led to reading that Exhortation and I managed to follow the first track for at least this little while. For that I am grateful. Maybe there is hope for me after all.
Buy only if I give credit where credit is due, and say:
Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Mary! Thank you, Francis!
One of you, or maybe all of you, made sure that I got the message and got this reflection somewhere close to right.
For that I am humbly indebted.