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Food for the journey

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When Elizabeth II was crowned queen of England in 1953, it was the first time such a ceremony was fully televised. It was a grand event as usual, but this time the scope was much larger. People not only in the United Kingdom but all over the world could watch the event. Elizabeth effectively had been reigning since the death of her father more than a year earlier, but the coronation ceremony and celebrations were delayed to allow for an appropriate length of time for mourning. That day, June 2, 1953, was a chance for the nation to celebrate its new monarch in proper fashion.

Later that week, Msgr. Ronald Knox, a well-known English convert to Catholicism, remarked, “Only two days ago; and now it is all over, and we are fain to distract ourselves with the fireworks. The decorations hang limply, waiting to be taken down; we look at them half ashamed, like a schoolboy confronted with the toys of childhood. All our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineve and Tyre — the gaping crowds still eddy to and fro in the streets of London, but with a sense of anti-climax. After all, the queen we crowned two days ago wields no powers she did not wield, commands no loyalty she did not command, before the ceremony took place. We are back where we were, just as anxious as before over yesterday’s problems.”

As grand a ceremony as it was, as important a moment on the world stage, it too was a passing thing. For Msgr. Knox, it was a reminder that all things in this life are passing. The patriotism and love of country that it evoked for him and for so many were reminders that there is a still greater country that we long for. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). Our life on this earth is a journey to that heavenly homeland. That is the land that will not pass away but will last forever.

This Sunday’s Gospel, too, has something to say about what lasts forever. Christ says to us, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” First, Christ came to us from that heavenly homeland, and he came as living bread. Second, by eating the bread that is his flesh, we will live forever. Partaking in his flesh gives us a share in his eternity. Unlike everything else in this world which passes away, we can live forever by eating that bread from heaven. We journey through this passing world, nourished by food from an eternal world — food that makes us immortal, too.

Because this Gospel is paired with the story of Elijah’s journey in the first reading (1 Kings 19:4-8), we’re already thinking of a journey to a destination when we hear Christ’s saving words in John. Just as Elijah sought to journey to the mountain of God, the same place that Moses encountered the Lord, we journey through the desert of this world toward heaven. Elijah was unable to make the journey without the food brought by an angel of the Lord. Since our journey is to a place much loftier than that mountain — an eternal place, in fact — we need a greater kind of food to strengthen us for the journey: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Yes, the holy Mass passes by just as the rest of the world does. We can look back at the last Mass we attended and look forward to the next one we will attend. But the Eucharist leaves an effect on us. Heaven has touched us. Eternity has nourished us. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” In a fruitful reception of holy Communion, we already have received a pledge of future glory. The Eucharist is not just a reminder of that heavenly homeland toward which we journey — it propels us toward it.

Fr. Oetjen is studying canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, with residence at St. Agnes Church in Arlington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021