Nourished by the Word of God alone
At the end of an interview in La Croix International last week, Emmanuel Lafont, Bishop of Cayenne in French Guyana and a scripture scholar, said: “The episode of the disciples at Emmaus reminds us that without the bread of the Word, the Eucharistic bread is incomprehensible.”
We are a Eucharistic Church, our public gatherings and worship have, as their focal point, the Eucharist. There has been a lot of pain and loss as we have not been able to gather around this focal point for almost two months. Many have concerningly asked, “What does this mean?”
Bishop Lafont’s comment got me thinking. Not all of the Gospels have, at the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist as their focal point. The Gospel of John offers us no account of the institution of the Eucharist. St John replaces the institution narrative with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
Our traditional interpretation of this is that Jesus stripped himself of his dignity. He took off his robe and stooped down to wash the disciples’ feet in an act of service and humility. We are, therefore, called to same acts of service. Imagine if, today, we could do that: the African National Congress politician washes the feet of the Democratic Alliance politician and vice versa. The Freedom Front Plus politician washes the feet of the Economic Freedom Fighter politician and vice versa. The Catholic washes the feet of the Protestant and vice versa. Christians wash the feet of Muslims and vice versa. When we look at Jesus’ action through that lens, we quickly notice how much we have failed to understand this lesson at the Last Supper. But, this is only one layer of understanding.
A deeper level of understanding reveals that the Lord, the Word himself, chooses to wash his disciples’ feet to prepare them for, and explain the significance of, his suffering and death on the cross. It is the Word, on his knees, that shapes and gives meaning to the cross. Without the Word the sacrifice of the cross cannot be fully comprehended. Without the Word the resurrection is void of meaning and power.
Partly, as the Catholic response to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, we have tended to highlight the Sacraments and Protestants the Word of God. We know the standing joke, Protestants know the Scriptures very well and can often put Catholics to shame. On the other hand, Catholics have a sacramental understanding of the world. It was only at Vatican II that Catholics were encouraged to read the Scriptures and study them for themselves. The relationship between Word and the Sacrament was restored and highlighted in the wonderful liturgical reforms of the Council, reforms we still need to understand more fully and practice more boldly!
The disciples on the road to Emmaus are first fed on the Word. This leads to the opening of their eyes to the Eucharist in their presence. There are countless examples in the Scriptures of people who were nourished on the Word of God alone for a long time before they understood or saw more. Lafont points to those in Exile in Babylon. When their place of worship, the Temple, was destroyed and the priests could not sacrifice, they had only God’s Word to keep them nourished.
We are reminded too of the words of the Centurion in the Gospel who begs Jesus to heal his servant: “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, just say the word and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). He knows the power of Jesus, the Word. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told that “the word of God is alive and active” (Heb 4:12).
The best thing that we can do in this time of isolation and confinement, or ‘monastery-living’ as some have dubbed it, is to enter more deeply into the narrative that shapes and gives meaning to the sacrifice of the Mass. Our time away from Mass is an opportunity for us – and perhaps a nudge from God – to make the Word central in our lives. By doing this, we will enter more fully into the Mass. Paradoxically, the bread of the Word can reshape us and give new meaning to the bread of the Eucharist if we make use of this opportunity to sit with the Scriptures. We are invited to rediscover the power of God’s Word and so our time of deprivation can become a very enriching experience!
To help us live with and in the Word of God, the Institute will offer a Week of Guided Prayer beginning on Pentecost Sunday online (31 May – 5 June). Please watch our website for details.
On Wednesday we will begin offering a weekly sheet to help the faith formation of young children in the home. There are no catechetical classes at the moment so this this will be available on our website as a resource.
Our series Accompanying is broadcast Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at midday. For those who want more, we are also offering some guided audio meditations with some of the broadcasts. On Mondays we reflect on prayer, on Wednesdays on the book of Job and suffering and Fridays we offer some guidelines for living through this time of challenge and change.
Our daily reflections on the Scripture text of the day is emailed Monday – Friday. You can subscribe on our website.
Please be assured of our prayers for you, your loved ones and friends.
Best wishes, in the Lord
Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
Director: Jesuit Institute South Africa