The Tokyo Olympics have been going on now for a few weeks. On Sunday we will see the men’s marathon which is traditionally the final competition of the events. In the evening the Closing Ceremonies will take place. People around the world watch the competitions and hear of the stories – some truly amazing – of the athletes and their struggles and triumphs on the road to these events.
The training routines and discipline involved are rigorous. The athletes are strengthened and fortified through the practices and coaching to excel in their sport. As we watch them compete we see this excellence and are uplifted by their efforts.
An athlete’s training and preparations for the Olympics can provide us an image for life. In fact, St. Paul uses athletic imagery in his correspondence with the Corinthian community. You may recall the phrase “run so as to win.” (Corinth is in Greece and had the second largest athletic festival in the ancient world — the Isthmian Games — second only to the Olympics). We might take the athletic image and apply it to our lives of faith.
During the past two weeks, this week and the week after next, we have been or will hear Gospel passages from chapter six of the Gospel According to John. This section of the Gospel is many times referred to as the Bread of Life Discourse. A progression is involved whereby Jesus leads us deeper and deeper into an encounter with him as the Bread of Life. As he leads us along this journey he calls for faith. This faith will need to be vibrant, strong and deep rooted. Perhaps that’s the best place to draw an analogy from the Olympics.
Athletes have to dedicate themselves to their training and preparation if they are going to be good at what they do. This can be applied to many things in life. They also need instruction, encouragement, correction and nourishment – almost all the time. All these elements can easily be associated with our life of faith. If we practice our faith, receive instruction, are “part of the team,” and so forth – our faith will be enabled to grow strong. If an athlete’s routine falters over time his performance will diminish as well. The same is true for our faith life.
Jesus again calls us to faith in him in the gospel passage. Last week we heard him say: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” The invitation is huge – eternal life. The means are faith in Jesus.
Jesus uses food as a metaphor. Food, just as water, is necessary for human life. This concept is so basic and fundamental that we normally do not give it much thought. It is very much a part of our lives, woven in to our routines, our gatherings, our day. It is certainly an image easy to understand. Perhaps this is why Jesus chooses this image for himself. Just as food is necessary for life, he is necessary for life. Just as food nourishes and strengthens, he nourishes and strengthens. Just as food (many times) gathers us together, he gathers us together.
Jesus’ call to faith is met with some resistance. We see that in today’s passage. Some of the people start to question his assertions. Questions like “Isn’t he the son of Joseph?” begin to be murmured. Or “What does he mean, coming down from heaven?”
Jesus stops them and once again calls them to faith saying: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day.” By saying this Jesus is emphasizing the Father’s active presence in all that is happening. This is God’s plan. Jesus is sent from the Father, making him known and drawing people to him. The Father created the world and gives life. The Father sends the Son to give eternal life. This life comes through the Son.
Jesus quotes from the prophets: “They shall all be taught by God.” The point is that the Father is leading his people to himself through Jesus. The association between faith and eternal life is repeated: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.”
The next step on this journey of faith and life to which Jesus is calling us comes at the end of the passage. Here we see the foundations of our understanding of the Eucharist. Jesus says: “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.”
The celebration of the Eucharist is a celebration of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. Gathering around the altar we sacramentally (or mysteriously) are united with the saving event. On the cross is where Jesus gives his “flesh for the life of the world.” In the celebration of the Mass we “remember” and are united to that saving event. It is also at the Mass that we are offered and we receive his Body, the Bread of Life.
Faith in Christ Jesus and in our union with him through the Eucharist is what leads us to life. When we gather every Sunday for the celebration of the Mass, we are like athletes preparing for a big event, are nourished, fed, encouraged, consoled, instructed and led for life, and life eternal.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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