Bottom line: We do not create community. Jesus does. In Jesus we become part of the chosen people and as part of that people, Jesus satisfies our hunger.
If you have watched (or read) Shakespeare plays, you may have noticed the way a main character will reveal himself. He does it by a sentence beginning with the words, "I am." For example, King Lear descends so quickly into seeming madness that we don't know what to make of him. But then, at a dramatic moment, King Lear says, "I am a very foolish, fond old man." That "I am" statement lets us know he is not really insane, but that his fondness and his foolishness have driven him to an extreme.
In today's Gospel, Jesus makes an "I am" statement. It initiates his great self-revelation. Jesus says, "I am the bread of life." He not only multiplies bread. He is bread.
That is the reason why Jesus fled when they wanted to make him king. It wasn't some kind of false humility. The fact is that Jesus is greater than any king. A king, a political leader, can give people bread - and that is a good thing. A political leader can create a system where people are motivated to produce bread - and that is a better thing. But Jesus offers something much, much greater. Jesus is bread. As he says, "Whoever comes to me will never hunger."
To understand the significance of Jesus' self-revelation, we need to look at the context. Jesus is speaking to his Jewish brothers and sisters. Jesus is a son of Israel; he was born into the chosen race, the Jewish people. His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, was a faithful Jewish woman. When the Jewish people heard the word "bread," they immediately thought of the manna, the miraculous bread God gave them during the forty years in the desert. So they said to Jesus, "our ancestors ate manna in the desert."
You and I can also say, "our ancestors ate manna in the desert." We have become part of the Jewish people. As St. Paul says, we are "wild branches" that have been grafted on to the olive tree. One of my friends has a cherry tree that produces both Bing and Rainier Cherries. He accomplished it by grafting different branches onto a main tree. By our baptism, you and I have been grafted to the olive tree of Judaism. As Pope Pius XI stated, "we are spiritual Semites." You and I can say, "our ancestors ate manna in the desert."
So this brings us to the second instruction regarding participation in the Mass. Last Sunday I spoke about coming together as an "assembly," and some implications of that in terms of dress, arriving on time and staying till the end, coming to Mass each Sunday - and common sense things like not chewing gum, silencing electronic devices and moving to the middle of the pew.
This Sunday I want to address the 'Sign of Peace.' There has been a misunderstanding: We've gotten the idea that we create community.* No, Jesus creates community. He does it by making us part of his people. We express community by affection, care, support - and above all, by forgiveness and reconciliation. The Sign of Peace expresses our desire to allow God to make us into a community. We cannot do it on our own power. The sign of peace should be a simple, reverent gesture: "The peace of Christ be with you." Or, "the peace of Christ." Or simply, "Peace." Then offer a handshake - or a kiss if you are on more intimate terms. St. Paul speaks about greeting each other with a "holy kiss." I wouldn't try it here in Monroe, unless the person is your wife or sister.
But do give a smile. When I have attended Mass while on vacation, I have been amazed at how reluctant people are to give a smile. At the same time, the Sign of Peace is not a time for chatter. It is sufficient to give the Sign of Peace to those near you. Some guys act like they are running for mayor. They want to shake every hand in the church! (Vote for me.) The Sign of Peace is not a conversation starter; it is a symbolic gesture to prepare our hearts for Communion. It is possible to be friendly, but also reverent.** Then focus on the Lord as we sing, "Lamb of God."
In speaking about the Sign of Peace, I would like to say a word about hand-holding. There is nothing in the rubrics that prohibits holding hands during the Our Father. At the same time, it is not required. Someone once told me, "I don't go to Mass because I don't like holding hand." I knew him well enough to say, "Oh, you are crazy." He replied, "I may be crazy, but I should be able to go to Mass without someone grabbing my hand." While it is OK to hold hands, please, also respect for those who prefer not to.
Once again, I want to emphasize that we do not create community. Jesus does. What we do is express the union that Jesus has already achieved by making us part of his people. Our ancestors ate manna in the desert. In Jesus we are part of the chosen people. As part of that people, Jesus satisfies our hunger. He initiates his great self-revelation by saying, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger."
*We often hear people lament our "lack of community." I take a different view: The amazing thing is not that we have so little community, but that we have any community at all. When you consider human emotions and how easily some word, look or gesture can trigger negative emotions, it is a miracle we have any community at all. I wish I had a dime for every time someone told me: "It seemed like things were going great, then all of sudden he exploded. I don't know what got into him." As we begin a new millennium, many people are recognizing that community does not come naturally or easily. That is a good insight because with it comes an openness to the daily grace that makes possible forgiveness and reconciliation - the true basis for any community.
**In fact, deep friendship requires reverence.
General Intercessions for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (from Priests for Life)
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