(Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6: 51-58)
Introduction to Mass
This Sunday we move onto the next part of chapter six of Saint John's gospel. Jesus talks about how our receiving his body and blood in the Eucharist affects us and draws us into the life of God. The other two readings encourage their readers to grow in their knowledge of God by pursuing spiritual wisdom and turning their backs on ignorance and senseless ways of living.
We begin Mass by acknowledging the times when we have been content with shallowness and mediocrity in our spiritual lives, and we ask God to forgive us and to lead us towards a greater depth of faith in him.
Both the first and second readings this Sunday in different ways revolve around the subject of wisdom. As we heard, the author of the Old Testament book of Proverbs sees wisdom and perception as being opposed to ignorance and folly, while St. Paul in the second reading contrasts wisdom and sensitivity to God’s will with thoughtlessness, shallowness and a dissipated way of behaving.
How would we define wisdom? Wisdom is a type of knowledge, but not the sort of technical knowledge people have in a single, narrow area of expertise, like computing or economics. Wisdom isn’t the same as cleverness. It’s more a knowledge of human nature, human character and behaviour, acquired through experience of life and human relationships. As traditionally understood, wisdom comes with age.
Leading on from that, wisdom - to my mind, anyway - also has the connotation of knowledge about virtue, a grasp of the fundamental moral values that give human life purpose.
The wise person is someone who has learned to be free from negative and harmful motivations like aggression and greed and using others for personal advantage, and out of their own struggles they’ve acquired the quality of understanding, or compassion, about the weaknesses and the malevolent features of human character.
And then, if we want to include the religious point of view, which the author of the book of Proverbs and Saint Paul certainly did, I would say that the quality of wisdom also includes knowledge of God and an appreciation of the spiritual aspect of life – an openness to the mystery that lies beyond our ordinary day-to-day experience.
The wise religious-minded person is somebody who has lived his or her life in a growing friendship with God and has acquired a valuable knowledge about the spiritual life, prayer, holiness, the complexities and subtleties of human sinfulness.
So their depth of spiritual knowledge makes them people worth consulting about those subjects: their experience can help other people overcome their own faults and make progress in their relationship with God.
We might be lucky enough to know an actual individual who answers that description but another main source of this wisdom and knowledge of God is the long legacy of spiritual teaching that's built up down through the centuries of the Church's history.
Christian mystics and theologians - many of them great saints and masters of the spiritual life - have reflected on the mystery of God, they've reflected on their experience of God's grace and God's love in the circumstances of their own life, and they've passed on their reflections as a way of helping the rest of us to find God, in our prayer and in the activities and the events we're involved in, day by day, week by week.
Most of us need that kind of guidance for exactly the reason that the Book of Proverbs says: that without it, we're less likely to get to know God well and less likely to be drawn into his life. We're more likely to disappear down various dead-ends or get wrapped up in a lot of irrelevancies and spiritual self-indulgence.
We could look at it this way. On one level the spiritual life is like learning to play a sport or learning how to play a musical instrument. We could try to teach ourselves, and we might even end up quite skilled. But we all know that it would be a much better idea to place ourselves under the instruction of someone who knows more than we do, who can pass on knowledge and teach us skills that we might never pick up by ourselves.
The books of the Bible and the Church’s tradition of spiritual teaching work like that. They make up a store of wisdom that exists for us to benefit from. They’re there for us to make use of, to deepen our understanding of God and the spiritual life.
If we pay attention to them, the way we would pay attention to a good sports coach or music teacher, then we won’t go too badly wrong. If we ignore the wisdom that other people can impart to us, in spirituality as much as any other area of life, then we’re running the risk of a flawed development and a limited progress.
Moving onto the Gospel reading, we have a few more lines from Chapter Six of Saint John's gospel where John is emphasising the central place occupied by the Eucharist in our Christian spiritual life. "If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life in you," Jesus says here.
Briefly, I would suggest the following connection with the other two readings.
First of all, the way Saint John presents it in his gospel, Jesus himself is the embodiment - the incarnation - of God's wisdom. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, so that all the thoughts and words and teaching that Jesus came out with during his ministry were God’s thoughts and words and teaching. When we take part in the Eucharist we’re uniting ourselves with those thoughts and words and that teaching.
When we receive Christ in the Eucharist it’s supposed to be in the general context of our attempt to grow in that spiritual wisdom and that deepening friendship with God that I mentioned a minute ago. In fact taking part in the Mass and receiving Communion doesn’t make any sense, and won’t have any effect on us, unless we’re trying to pray and to be open to God more generally, and trying all the time to deepen our acquaintance with him.
This is implied by what Jesus says here about the person who eats his flesh and drinks his blood in the Eucharist. "Whoever eats me will draw life from me, he says, and: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him”.
The whole purpose of the Eucharist is to change us so that we become more like Christ and so that we’re drawn more closely into communion of life with God.
So it goes without saying that our taking-part in the Eucharist shouldn't be something we do mindlessly or thoughtlessly. The sacraments don’t work like magic. Receiving Communion doesn’t work like a drug, altering our state of mind regardless of any involvement or cooperation on our part.
Receiving Communion only makes sense, and can only have an effect on us, in the context of the sort of whole Christian moral and spiritual life that Saint Paul is urging his readers to lead in the second reading today.
So these are the kinds of things I think we can reflect on, or the different implications that we can recognise, in these three readings this Sunday, where we're invited to make a connection between eating and drinking Christ's body and blood and cultivating the spiritual wisdom and knowledge of God that Saint Paul and the author of the book of Proverbs are urging us to embrace.