The 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B] – July 26, 2015

Here is the homily preached at St. John Parish in Clonmel on the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Year B], on July 26, 2015.  The Scriptures of the Mass are II Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15:  click HERE for the readings at the USCCB website.

Jump below for the homily’s text…

The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
II Kings 4:42-44  +  Ephesians 4:1-6  +  John 6:1-15
July 26, 2015

“…he withdrew again to the mountain alone.” 

What does it mean for Jesus to withdraw to the mountain “alone”?  What does it mean for Jesus to be “alone”?

The word “alone” is a melancholy word.  To be “alone” is different than to be “in solitude”; is different than to be simply “by oneself”; is different than to be “unique”.  When St. John the Evangelist tells us that Jesus “withdrew again to the mountain alone, there’s a sense that something’s wrong.  There’s a sense that Jesus would rather not have had to be alone, but that it was at that point necessary.

This Sunday begins a six-week span during which our Sunday Gospel moves out of St. Mark’s Gospel account, into that of St. John the Evangelist.  Every third year during the summer, we hear this set of six passages from the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel account.  The bulk of this chapter consists of Jesus preaching a sermon about the Sacrament of the Eucharist—the “Bread of Life”—which of course we receive in Holy Communion.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion is all about entering into union with God.  That’s all the word “communion” literally means:  “union with”.  The Sacrament of Holy Communion helps us turn away from the alone-ness caused by our sins, and into communion with God (and others). The mystery of Holy Communion is something that we’re tempted as Catholics to take for granted, because it’s so familiar to us, especially if we’re cradle Catholics.  If we could attend every Mass, and make every Holy Communion, with the reverence that we had in our hearts at our First Holy Communion, then the life of each of us would be profoundly deeper.  Maybe these six Sundays will help us return to that joy and reverence.

Today’s Gospel passage is a prologue to Jesus’ sermon about Holy Communion.  The miracle that Jesus works here at the beginning of John Chapter Six is very obviously a foreshadowing of the miracle of the Eucharist.  But you could argue that the point of today’s Gospel passage is not so much what Jesus does for the crowds, but rather how the crowds respond to Jesus’ miracle.  “When the people saw the sign [Jesus] had done, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.’”  The people “were going to come and carry [Jesus] off to make Him king”.  But this response of the people is exactly why Jesus retreats “to the mountain alone”.

So what is it that the crowd’s gotten wrong?  Frankly, it’s the same thing that you and I often get wrong.  Put simply, it’s a preoccupation with the material over the spiritual:  a preoccupation with this world, over the next.  It’s a preoccupation with our selves, over God.

We have to be honest, the people in the Gospel want to make Jesus king because he makes their lives better.  This is a “me-centered” approach to kingship.  That’s not what Jesus wants.  The people are not on the same wavelength as Jesus.  The people are not accepting Jesus for who He wants to be for them.  The people are not in communion of mind and heart with Jesus.  You might say that at this point, there is no “holy communion” between these people and Jesus.  So Jesus withdraws to the mountain alone.

You could argue that the rest of John Chapter Six is Jesus’ attempt to purify the motives of these people, to help them ascend the mountain with Him.  Jesus preaches about the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist so that people will make Him King for the right reasons:  so that people will put Jesus at the center of their lives, instead of them putting themselves and their needs at the center of Jesus’ life.

For now, Jesus withdraws to the mountain alone.  It’s almost as if Jesus admits a temporary defeat.  But in the coming Sundays we’ll see Jesus descend to help the people of His day—and us in our own day—to accept Him for the King that His Father crowned Him to be.

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But to keep ourselves from the mistake of the crowd in today’s Gospel passage, we need to reflect over time about all the different ways in which Christians are called to “communion”.  We need to reflect not just about the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but about communion in many different settings, and within many different vocations.  For example, a priest has to work in communion with his bishop:  otherwise, his life will become unbearable.  Likewise, children have to live in communion with their siblings and parents:  otherwise, the life of the domestic church will become unbearable.  A consecrated religious sister has to live in communion with her Mother Superior and her fellow sisters:  otherwise, life in the convent will become unbearable.

But among all the different human relationships that a person might have in this world, none can possibly be more intimate than that of husband and wife.  Marriage is the measure against which we can compare all other types of human relationships.

The only relationship that even comes close to Marriage in terms of love of two persons for each other is the relationship between parent and child.  But Jesus Himself instructs us—when He’s questioned about what’s wrong with divorce—that “He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and… ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’”.[1]

This call to unity can be broken not only by divorce, though.  Much more common in our Western culture is a sin that is praised by some—strangely enough—as an act of responsibility and even prudence:  namely, the sin of artificial contraception.

This Sunday concludes a national week of focus on the Church’s teachings about planning a family.  The Church’s teachings, enriched so greatly over the past decades by the teachings of St. John Paul the Great, show how planning a family according to natural means is not only morally good for wife, husband, and their shared married life.  Planning a family according to natural means also has medical benefits, while artificial means of contraception are showing, more and more over time, how much harm can come from choosing what is artificial over what is natural.  You’ve seen and heard this yourselves in commercials promoting artificial contraception:  commercials that spend at least as much time with warnings about side effects as they do about the claimed benefits of their product.

More and more people are realizing that they deserve better.  Many are realizing that that “something better” comes from God Himself, in the order of nature by which God designed man and woman.  Some are realizing how God’s plan for love is taught so clearly by the leaders of the Church.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, just a few weeks ago released an encyclical letter about Mother Nature—as we sometimes call her—and about man’s stewardship towards nature.  This stewardship extends to the nature of one’s own body.

Likewise, on March 19—the Solemnity of St. Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary—our own bishop issued new guidelines for Marriage preparation within the diocese.  The bishop called for every engaged couple to have instruction in Natural Family Planning as part of their preparation for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

Why is there more and more emphasis in the Church in support of natural forms of family planning?  There are many reasons, but we have to be honest that one reason is having cold water splashed in our faces by the secular culture that surrounds us.  As secular culture continues to fragment, and as more broken homes lead to more broken lives and to more crime, poverty, drug abuse, and homelessness, the leaders of the Church realize that we need to return to the basics.  The Church needs to return to the heart of things in order to recover a way of life that has been mocked and abused in our secular culture for too long:  a life of modesty, purity, and chastity.

Many in our culture are only waking up now to the hard truth about the consequences of believing that it’s beneficial for a couple to separate the two goods of, on the one hand, the act of marital love, and on the other hand, the openness of that act to new life.

Many in our culture are only realizing now what happens when, for decades, a culture claims that this act has no intrinsic connection to child-bearing.

Many are only realizing now that a culture that claims that marriage does not have to be open to the bearing of children, is a culture that is free to define marriage in a way that’s open to those who cannot by nature conceive.

The secular culture is never going to be convinced of the truth of what the Church teaches unless her members live out the Church’s beliefs about Marriage and family life.  The solution to a culture that canonizes barrenness, self-promotion, and immediate satisfaction of one’s every desire, is the Way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  As a Christian, you can never kid yourself into thinking that this Way is easy, broad and comfortable.  After all, God did not make you for yourself.

Not only in regard to the morality of married love, but throughout the entire Christian life, St. Paul’s words today point to what it means to be open to the life that comes from God.  What is natural can be the foundation for the life of the supernatural.  What is artificial is not strong enough to be the foundation for the life of the supernatural.  This is a life of virtue that God has designed us for, and called us to:  in the words of St. Paul, “to live… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:  one body and one Spirit”.

[1] Matthew 19:4-5, quoting Genesis 1:27; 2:24.