Familiarity and Indifference

There is an old saying that goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” As human beings with limited attention spans we tend to grow tired of the things we have and desire the new and improved. New ideas are more interesting than traditional wisdom, new toys are better than old ones, and a new acquaintance seems more interesting than an old friend.

The people in the Gospel today struggle with the same problem: how to understand the extraordinary claims being made by Jesus regarding being the bread of life. They have seen Him grow up in the home of Mary and Joseph, but now He claims that He has come down from heaven, that His flesh is the substance that will give all of the nourishment we need. The Jews, though, can’t agree because they can’t put together the familiar with the extraordinary.

Our Lord’s claims are even more astounding when we consider the context in which they are made: He is referencing the experience of the ancestors of the Jewish people as they wondered through the dessert after the Lord freed them from slavery in Egypt. As they wander in the dessert their food runs out, and so God sends bread from heaven every morning with the dew, which the Hebrews gather for their sustenance. The point is that they had to rely on God even for their most basic nourishment.

This is also evoked by the story about the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament lesson today. Elijah, like his ancestors, is on the point of death while wondering through the dessert. We can imagine the intense hunger and thirst he would have felt (even if most of us have never experienced such hunger). So we can also imagine how much relief he would have felt at the fulfillment of God’s promise that the food provided to him by an angel would be sufficient. Elijah gets up and, sustained by this bread given by the angel, walks 40 days to God’s mountain in order to encounter the Lord there.

The people of our Lord’s day would have remembered the important events of the Exodus, which were constantly being re-told in their religious rituals. When He claims that His flesh is the true manna, of which the bread that fed the Hebrew people in the dessert was a foreshadowing, He is making a radical claim, and it is very hard for them to accept.

In a similar way, that claims that we as Catholics make about the Eucharist are hard to accept. That the Eucharist hides under the appearances of bread and wine the very body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is not an easy teaching to accept. It goes contrary to our scientific mentality that wants to see hard evidence for everything, that makes us instinctively skeptical about hard teachings.

Our Lord does not leave us without evidence for this teaching, though, even if it is not the sort of scientific evidence we might be seeking. This evidence is rather the words that He speaks in the Gospel today, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” What evidence, after all, could be better than the words of God Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ?

Christ assured the people of His day that He would give them His flesh for food to eat, which would help them reach eternal life in Heaven. He makes the very same promise to us. In next week’s Gospel He will tell us, “unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of His blood you shall not have life within you.” The Eucharist that He gave the Apostles at the Last Supper is truly the very same Eucharist that with which He feeds all of us through the hands of the priest at this Holy Mass.

We too struggle with putting together the radical nature of our Lord’s claims about the Eucharist with our familiarity with it. Hopefully familiarity has not bred contempt in us, but frequently it has bred indifference or lukewarmness. If you find that coming to Holy Communion is frequently a routine act that could be accompanied by distraction or indifference, ask the Lord today to give you an increase of faith in His real presence in the Eucharist along with a greater desire to receive Him every week (or even more often!).

God has done all this because He loves us so much. He wanted the great sign of His love, the sacrifice of the Cross, to continually be made present on the altars of every Catholic church, and He desires that we participate at this sacrifice at least once a week on the day dedicated to Him, Sunday. And in response, our hearts should be filled with longing to receive His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. This great sacrament is our greatest treasure as Catholics, because Christ is our greatest treasure, and the Eucharist truly is Christ.

Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Sunday XIX Through the Year
Parish Church of the Most Precious Blood of Christ, Fort Wayne

Image: Nicolas Poussin, The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Dessert, 1637-1639