The Catholic University of America

The 18th American Cardinals Dinner
Homily for the Mass at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer
Las Vegas, Nevada
April 27, 2007

Our reading from the Gospel of St. John today brings us right into the middle of a rather heated argument. The topic is Jesus and his message. The participants are members of the Jewish community in Capernaum. When you look at the text itself, the English translation uses the word "quarrel"; the original Greek, however, is much stronger. This was a "knock-down, drag-out fight." What was it that caused such bitter conflict? Jesus' words:

…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you do
not have life within you.

First of all, we have to hear the Gospel in its proper context. Jesus, a Jewish teacher, is speaking in a Jewish synagogue. He is addressing his fellow Jews. The Jewish law had very serious dietary regulations concerning what could be eaten and what should be avoided, especially concerning mixing flesh and blood. Jesus goes beyond those legal restrictions in his teaching. And if that were not enough, Jesus offers himself - his own flesh and blood - as food that not only can be consumed but that he says "must" be eaten if one is to live, to survive. Unheard of. Disturbing. Enough to cause a fight. And if that were not enough, Jesus indicates that his flesh and blood - this true food, this true drink, according to Jesus in John's Gospel - was far superior to the manna from heaven by which the ancient Israelites survived in their exile. But they eventually died. Jesus claims that he himself is the "bread that came down from heaven" and that those who "feed on me" will live forever. With all of that in mind, it is easier to understand the hostile reaction.

Our first reading today, a continuation of the Acts of the Apostles that we have been reading in this Easter season, also brings us right into the middle of genuine hostility. Saul of Tarsus, "still breathing murderous threats" against Jesus' disciples, is on a mission to imprison and eventually destroy those who are attempting to follow Jesus' "way." But, as he moves toward Damascus, he is confronted by Jesus in a dazzling and dramatic way, knocked off his horse, blinded by Jesus' light. "Why are you persecuting me?" Jesus asks. And, in one of the greatest conversion stories of all time, Saul of Tarsus - great adversary of Christianity - becomes, as the Acts reveal, the man, "a chosen instrument of mine, to carry my name before the Gentiles, kings and children of Israel." His sight is restored, his strength renewed, "and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God."

My sisters and brothers in Christ, we have in our readings today two dramatic stories that lead to the same conclusion: that no matter what the experience of our lives may be, it is Jesus and his message that bring about lasting change; it is Jesus who is the path to life here in this world and forever in the next.

For most of us, our conversion of heart is much less dramatic that that of Saul of Tarsus. In fact, for most of us, conversion is not a moment or an event but, rather, the work of a lifetime - a journey, a pilgrimage filled with joys and sorrows, successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies. No one of us is the same person now as we were five, 10, 20 or more years ago, physically and spiritually. Conversion is the story of our life. Occasionally, something may knock us off our high horse and remind us that there is something larger, something more important than ourselves, something worth handing our lives over to realize. But without the occasions and opportunities for faith that human life presents, without opening ourselves to those occasions and opportunities for faith, conversion is not possible and we will spend our lives quarreling with others, quarreling with ourselves about the meaning and purpose of our lives. And Jesus himself is the food and drink for the journey that makes that meaning and purpose attainable. In fact, Jesus, our true food and real drink, is the reason that gathers us together at this very moment.

Change is never easy but change is the only constant in our lives. If Jesus is the impetus and motivation for change, the path to life becomes clearer and the goal more attainable. If Jesus is the impetus and motivation for change, the hardness of our hearts melts away into the very mercy and compassion that is the presence of God. For, after all, God is love.

The Acts of the Apostles today tell us that when Saul did what Jesus asked of him, that when he opened himself to grace and to Jesus, that "scales fell from his eyes" and he could see.

Today, in this Eucharist, when Jesus Christ once again offers us his body and blood as real food and true drink, let us beg him to open our eyes so that we might see: that we might see his face in this world and that we might bring his love and forgiveness and compassion to all whom we meet. We will still encounter hostility and opposition in the world because of what we believe and in whom we believe. But remember Jesus' words to us in the beginning of John's Gospel and never forget them; speak them, day in and day out: "In the world you will have troubles but take courage, I have overcome the world."

Very Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.