Mistaken Familiarity

(Homily for Nineteenth Ordinary Sunday, Year B)

Bottom line: A hasty or mistaken familiarity shipwrecks our relationships. With Jesus the consequences are eternal. The antidote for hasty familiarity is reverence.

The Gospel we just listened to is the third in a series of five. In them Jesus reveals who he is and what kind of relationship he desires with us. Jesus sets the stage for this revelation by taking a few barley loaves and feeding an enormous crowd. They then try to make him king, but Jesus has something greater in store. He doesn't just want to give people bread; he wants them to understand a much greater truth: He is bread. "I am the bread of life," Jesus says, "whoever comes to me will never hunger."

To appreciate these words we must identify with the original hearers. They murmured: Did I hear him right? Did he say "I am bread"? The original hearers then did something that people often do when they don't understand: They reached for something familiar: We know his parents - he is the "son of Joseph." Well, they were wrong even about that, but they committed a more basic error. They assumed that by putting Jesus in a category, they didn't need to find out anything else about him.

We should not be too quick to blame them. They made a common mistake - perhaps more common now than ever. The error is called hasty or mistaken familiarity. It means to assume an acquaintance with someone and then to use it not as a starting point, but as shield. If you put a person in a box, you can keep him at arm's length - or even write him off completely: He is a typical Democrat. She is typical teenager. Etc., etc. It might be interesting to know that someone is a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent. We certainly approach a teenager differently than a senior, but what a horrible mistake to think that tells us everything we want to know about them!

Mistaken familiarity puts a roadblock in our relationships. The same happens if we think we have Jesus all figured out. Those of us raised as Christians may start thinking that we know everything about him. Or, worse, a person might read a magazine article or watch a television "documentary" that claims to (finally!) give the real story about Jesus. I encourage you to approach popular media with a healthy dose of skepticism - especially when they present the latest "real Jesus."* For my part I have killed my television (except for DVD's) and stopped subscribing to popular magazines or newspapers, but even so they are hard to escape. Be aware that they pander to the temptation to put Jesus in a box. I call it a temptation because if someone puts Jesus in box, they can then write him off - and no longer disturb their minds with his mysterious - and exigent - words. Like the original hearers, we readily fall into a mistaken familiarity.

Regarding Jesus, mistaken familiarity has eternal consequences. Jesus tells us: "I am the bread of life...whoever eats this bread will live forever." Jesus will spell out these consequences in greater detail next Sunday. For now, let me put it this way: Jesus is not one more option - like whether you are going to buy a Ford or a Honda. Jesus makes it clear that he is the one way, the single door that opens to eternal life. "Whoever eats this bread will live forever."

For that reason, we must resist the temptation of mistaken familiarity with Jesus. Whatever we know about him is only the tiniest glimmer of his mystery. Hasty familiarity - thinking that we know all we need to know about him - is fatal. It isolates us, cuts us off, from the one person who can satisfy our deepest hunger.

Hasty familiarity can affect the way we approach Jesus in the Eucharist. In this Sunday's instruction, I would like to address that danger. The danger of hasty familiarity has increased in recent decades. In the sixties we experienced a broad reform of the liturgy. One of its goals was to get away from a rigid adherence to rubrics. Since 1969, we have been using the "Mass of Pope Paul VI." It allows more options in prayers, Scripture readings and the form of receiving Communion. As someone who has learned and celebrated the previous "Mass of Pope John XXIII," I see many advantages in the newer form of the Mass - especially its three-year cycle of Scripture readings.

The Mass of Pope Paul VI, however, requires a greater preparation of its participants. It presupposes, for example, that we bring a deep reverence for the Eucharist. Unfortunately, we don't always do that. We sometimes approach Communion casually. We form a line** and take Communion in the hand. There is nothing wrong with that, but in our culture it can have unfortunate associations.*** Getting into a line evokes fast-food places like McDonalds. And the food we eat with our hands, we consider of lesser value: snacks and quick foods like hot dogs and candy bars. When we eat with our hands, we are often distracted - driving a car or watching TV or a computer.

We cannot escape those associations of "hand food." We can, fortunately, do things to counter-balance them. When you come to Communion, prepare your heart. Consider who you are receiving. Keep hands out of the pockets and fold them. As the person in front of you receives Communion, make a bow that involves not just your neck, but also your shoulders. If you receive in the hand, place your left hand over the right in the form of a cross - making a "throne" for the Lord. Step aside and reverently place the Host on your tongue.

You can also receive the Eucharist directly on your tongue.**** I teach that to children making their First Communion and adults entering the Church at the Easter Vigil. There are many countries where Communion on the tongue is the norm. Even here, it might be required in certain circumstances: For example, when a mom or dad is carrying a baby - and cannot extend both hands in the form of a cross. Unless the communicant extends their hands in the correct manner, I will tend to place the Host directly on the tongue. No one should grab the Host with the hand or two fingers.

Whether you receive on the tongue or in the hand, please onsider that for a few minutes your body is a tabernacle, containing the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus remains present sacramentally as long as the "sign" of bread lasts - that is, until the Host dissolves and becomes part of molechules of your body.

The most important word you say during Mass is "amen." When the priest or Communion minister holds up the Host and says, "The Body of Christ," you reply, "Amen." It means, "Yes, I believe."

Please, do everything in your power to avoid a mistaken familiarity when you come forward for Communion. This Sunday I have spoken mainly about our outward comportment when we receive the Bread of Life. Next Sunday, I will address something much more important: the proper spiritual preparation necessary to receive Communion. For now let me sum up this way:

A hasty or mistaken familiarity shipwrecks our relationships. With Jesus the consequences are eternal. The antidote for hasty familiarity is reverence. Reverence is vital when we approach Jesus - the Bread of Life.


*In a delightful essay, Mark Shea deflates these new "discoveries":

"One good rule of thumb whenever one encounters a "real Jesus" who is radically at odds with the picture offered by the ordinary Tradition, Scripture and magisterial teaching of the Church is to examine the dominant fixations of one's own age and see how much of a Rorschach ink blot test that new "real Jesus" is. Oddly enough, when liberal Protestantism went gaga for the Social Gospel a hundred years ago, the Real Jesus looked very much like a Social Gospel Protestant a la Albert Schweitzer. When the world went nuts for Marxism, a new Real Jesus suddenly appeared on the scene as the First Marxist preaching the Sermon on the Barricades to the Oppressed Proletariat. Nazism was fond of discovering a Real Jesus who was "really" an Aryan eager to condemn Judaism and not beholden to his Jewish ancestry. Ironic postmodernity sees an ironic postmodern Jesus, feminism sees a feminist Jesus and New Age "prophets" see Real Jesus who offer the same sort of pantheistic tapioca they offer. Of the making of "real Jesuses" there is no end.

"In our case, we live in a popular, celebrity culture that is obsessively fascinated with sex and with the sex lives (real and imagined) of the famous. By some unfathomable coincidence, that's just what this sort of speculation about Jesus resembles too. Similarly, "documentaries" on the tube are, of course, geared to appeal to that sex-obsessed culture first and only secondarily to accuracy (the goal of TV, after all, is to sell shampoo and beer, not to be tremendously accurate). In other words, this "real Jesus", like all the previous "real Jesuses" tells us more about our current cultural quirks and obsessions than it does about anything substantial in the record."

**We need to work on seeing the line as "the Communion Procession - a sign of the pilgrim Church, the body of those who believe in Christ, on their way to the Heavenly Jerusalem." See The Reception of Holy Communion at Mass

***Those associations have led Pope Benedict to give Communion only on the tongue and ask that the communicants kneel. The Holy Father's example will probably be followed by other bishops.

****Some disparage Communion on the tongue because placing food in someone else's mouth seems like a strange (or "disgusting") thing to do. I take a different view. Even though it is not common, it often expresses intimacy and care. When my sister had her first child, I once cracked some crab and placed it directly in her mouth while she provided for her daughter. Think of the times when you have been fed or fed someone else. For sure it involved dependence and vulnerability, but was there not something lovely about that moment?

General Intercessions for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (from Priests for Life)

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From Archives (Homilies for 19th Sunday, Year B):

2018: Ephesians Week 5: Live in Love as Christ Loved Us
2015: Dimensions of the Eucharist Week 3: Forgiveness
2012: Why Jesus Came
2009: I Am the Bread of Life
2006: Not Despair, but Repair
2000: How to Receive Communion

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