The sixth chapter of John's Gospel, from which we will be reading these next several weeks, is a sustained meditation on the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist. Our passage for today, when read symbolically, illumines the major movements of the Mass.
In today's first reading, God announces that he himself will shepherd his people. Yet a few sentences later, he suggests that he will raise up a righteous human king to reign and govern wisely. So which is it—will God become king or will he establish a human king? The answer, which the Gospel reading unfolds, is both. In the person of Jesus, the divine shepherd, the scattered people of God find their way home.
For many people in the West, liberty seems to trump everything. We avatars of the egodrama, we worshippers at the altar of freedom, say that our choice is supreme. We don't want anyone to constrain our pursuit of money, success, power, influence, safety, or physical health. But what matters in the end is not to place our wills in the position of ultimate concern. Everything in nature, history, science, and our careers is, in the end, summed up in Christ.
This week's Scriptures illuminate the identity and mission of a prophet—a calling that belongs to all the baptized by virtue of our Baptism. God appoints the prophets to a specific mission. This mission is to speak God's word of truth. God's word of truth is not a private or personal opinion, but the Word of God communicated through human words. The prophet speaks God's word of truth to those within and those outside the Church. Prophets do not seek to proclaim a message that is easy to be accepted, but seek to speak God's word of truth, no matter how hard it might be to hear and accept. Christ is the paradigmatic example of the identity and mission of the prophet.
The Book of Wisdom offers us the strange assertion that God did not make death, for he formed humanity to be imperishable. This revelation directs us towards the truth that death is much more than merely the dissolution of the body; it is the full impact of the power of sin over our lives. This power is especially evident in our fear of death. The dormition of the Mother of God offers us a sign that Christ has given to humanity a way that takes us not only beyond our fear of death but beyond death itself. The way of Christ enables us to face the power of death with trust rather than fear.
John the Baptist is one of the most important figures in Christianity, and provides a window into the tradition of the Jewish priesthood and the historical context of the day. John chose the river Jordan to baptize, a conscious move to display the forgiveness of sins against the backdrop of the Jewish history of Exodus and liberation. Yet while he was baptizing in the desert, likely an exercise in protest of the corruption in the Temple in Jerusalem, he was heralding the coming of Christ, one who will "baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
Our Gospel for today features one of Jesus’ most beloved parables: that of the mustard seed. How does God tend to work? What does the building up of the Kingdom typically look like? From the very small to the very great—and usually by a slow, gradual process. God, it seems, tends to operate under the radar, on the edges of things, quietly, clandestinely.
In all the literature of the world, I don’t know of a richer account of who we are, what we’re called to be, and what goes wrong with us than the first chapters of Genesis—especially the third chapter, from which our first reading comes. And we see in our Gospel for today that what happens to us in the immediate wake of original sin—alienation, shame, self-centeredness, scapegoating—helps us immensely to understand Jesus and his work.
To truly understand what Jesus did at the climax of his life—and what the Catholic Church does at every Mass—we must understand the importance of blood sacrifice to Judaism in Jesus’ time. Everything that Moses did at Mt. Sinai, and all that was done for a thousand years in the temple, was summed up by Christ’s ultimate blood sacrifice on the Cross, offered for the reconciliation of God and humanity. And this ultimate lifeblood of God, sprinkled by Christ the high priest once for all, is what the Mass re-presents and makes sacramentally present to us.