Sunday, 23 August 2009

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

We come to the final instalment of a series of passages from John’s Gospel. It is climactic. We have seen Jesus feeding the five thousand. Then, when He calmed the sea He was crossing, He reveals His divine identity as the “I AM”. After that, as He preached in the synagogue, He presented Himself as the Bread sent by the Father. Now, just like Joshua in the First Reading who asked the people to make the choice of either serving the one true God or other gods, Jesus in today’s Gospel stood His ground—and so like Joshua or Peter, we have to make a choice.

Jesus presented Himself without quibble, without hesitation as the Bread of Life. To have life was to eat His flesh and to drink His blood, no less. Such language did not sit well with those who heard Him. They left Him but as proof Jesus meant what He had said, He did not chase after them. He simply let them go.

Jesus was the choice they had to make. It was either to choose Him or to leave Him. Today, we are challenged too. Jesus is the choice we must make for in the Eucharist, the Church presents Him to us not as symbols but as Real Presence.

In some way, the way we choose Jesus is a reflexion of what is known as the phenomenon of cafeteria Catholicism; we pick and choose what we want to believe. But, this image is perhaps too simple and dismissive because it paints a rather dismal picture that is black and white. The challenge is not what we pick and choose but rather how we pick and choose.

We all choose as a matter of fact. Choosing is part of the experience that makes us human. In some matters, we have no choice. We cannot choose the natural colour of our hair [even though you may choose to colour it] or which family to be born into [even though you may wish that you had been born into a more peaceful family than your present quarrelsome one]. In some other cases, the choosing had already been done by others. For example, the faith we profess. Many of us were baptised without our consent [we may have been screaming and kicking as the priest poured water over our heads] and as such, our decision to come here is perhaps the consequence of someone’s choosing. Our faith is derived from the authority of someone else. Or, if not, we may come here as a matter of habit or preference. In conclusion, some of our defining characteristics are conferred upon us by nature, whereas others by the choices of our parents etc. Those choices beyond our control, we are not interested in. But those we can control, we are interested in, because when we choose, we define ourselves.

Choosing is an exercise in self-identity—or self-definition. We can choose to be British, that is, if the United Kingdom wants us. We can choose to be of the opposite sex, that is, if we decide to go for a sex change. We can choose not to be a Catholic because the Protestant vision of Christianity is more vibrant, or being of another religion makes better economic sense.

However, to define who we are is more than the exercise of choosing as if we were in a supermarket. In order to properly exercise this ability to choose we need to get away from the supermarket type of choosing. It requires that we clarify why and what we want. It demands clarity of the purpose of life. It requires discipline and discipline equates to self-denial, self sacrifice and purification of motives and intentions. Choosing requires discipline because choosing has to be in conjunction with what it means to be human. [1] The key word is “human”—we choose in order to be fully human and today, Jesus presents the picture of humanity not just in itself. His picture of humanity is set within the context of eternal life. It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer.

Thus, we must choose eternal life and in Jesus, eternal life is assured through eating His body and drinking His blood. That was why Jesus was unequivocal. He did not mince His words. Choosing Jesus is big decision. He cannot be just someone at the side—like your side-dish of mushrooms or asparagus as you eat your main meal. He has to be someone at the centre of our lives. We choose His life or no life. We eat His flesh or no flesh at all.

It is true that the Gospel presents us with this climactic and dramatic choice that we are to make. However, the plain truth for so many of us is simply less climactic, less exciting and certainly less dramatic. It is closer to mundane. In this, we share a lot in common with the martyrs for in their case, their choosing had already been done a long time ago. They exercise their faculty of choosing—decision by decision, choice by choice. They did not just choose to be martyrs; they certainly did not wake up in the morning and suddenly decide to be martyrs. The choice to be martyrs came from a life-long practice of choosing Jesus every day and which they only and ultimately paid with their lives. Martyrdom is more the fruit of perseverance than an act of bravado.

We can take heart for the examples of the martyrs give us hope as they illustrate the life-long process of conversion necessary if we were to choose Jesus. So, if we have not counted Jesus as the cost of our lives, now is the time to choose Him so that we may begin on the slow road of conversion that one day, we may, if called, have no second thoughts paying the cost of our choosing with our very lives.
[1] The current ennui we encounter, with regard to life, may be due to the fear of choosing.