“What are they among so many?”
This morning’s Gospel complements our Lenten Programme, ‘Thinking Sacramentally’. Taken from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, sometimes known as ‘the Bread of Life discourse’, it is profoundly sacramental. The whole chapter is about the idea of the sacramental, the idea of the invisible being made known through the visible. And perhaps nowhere in the Scriptures is the harmony of sign and the thing signified made more apparent than in that chapter as a whole.
This Gospel has exercised a strong hold on the liturgical and sacramental imaginary of the Church. It is read today in the midst of the journey of Lent as a signal and significant feature of the pageant of justifying grace. From Advent to Trinity Sunday in the eucharistic lectionary we are essentially journeying with Christ in his work of the redemption of our humanity. Something of the nature of that journey is wonderfully concentrated here for us. We live, it seems, and live abundantly from the crumbs that are gathered up from the picnic feast with Jesus in the wilderness. There is an echo here to the Gospel reading for The Second Sunday in Lent about ourselves as like “the little dogs who eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table”.
This Gospel has also been read for many centuries on the last Sunday of the Trinity Season, on what we have later come to call The Sunday Next Before Advent. There it is read as a signal and significant feature of the pageant of sanctifying grace, as a kind of gathering up of the fragments of grace in the course of our spiritual journey from Trinity Sunday through to Advent Sunday which is all about sanctification. What Christ has done for us is to be lived in us. Such is sanctifying grace.
The two are interrelated. Sanctifying grace always recalls us to the justifying grace of Christ just as justifying grace always requires our taking a hold of it in our lives in sanctification. The interrelation of these two forms is our incorporation in Christ, the meaning of our life in Christ. It is profoundly and necessarily sacramental. It has everything to do with the relationship between God and man in Jesus Christ and the ways in which we participate in his divinity and his humanity through the grand pageants of creation and redemption and the great pageants of justification and sanctification. They are concentrated for us in this Gospel reading.
“O God, who didst wonderfully create and yet more wondrously restore the dignity of our human nature, Mercifully grant that by the mystery of this water and this wine we may be made partakers of his divinity who didst humble himself to share our humanity”. It is a prayer that you may have heard me say quietly and privately at the time of the preparation of the elements at the altar. It captures the nature of sacramental thinking, the idea of our being with God through God’s being with us, through the interplay of creation and redemption, and the union of the divine and the human in Jesus Christ. Today’s readings teach us is that our life in Christ happens through the harmony of Word and Sacrament, through the things of the world being made the instruments of grace and salvation.