I had a lovely day visiting a beautiful garden on Friday, and the profusion of plants and flowers and bees and birds was quite breath-taking. But then, at the far end of the garden, the visitor suddenly comes out into the open, and a great vista of countryside opens up before you, and on Friday the sky was blue with beautiful white clouds sailing slowly across it. This, to me, is just one way amongst countless others of experiencing just a little of the glory of God – the creative power underlying the Universe.
Last week I spoke a little of the presence of God in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass, but sadly it is easy not to connect that presence with the glorious presence of God in the world. God’s presence at Mass can easily become a little thing – a Presence that is quietly hidden in a tiny piece of bread – a holy moment maybe – but easily fixed in that one short holy moment at Mass.
Equally we may think of God’s presence as something that happened to us in the past – some moment when a baby was born, or we fell in love, or we experienced God’s power within us moving us beyond words. The people Jesus was talking to in the Gospel today (John 6:24-35) thought of God like that. They looked back to their people’s escape from slavery in Egypt some thousand years before. They remembered how their people survived in the desert for years finding food to eat – the food they called “manna”- that kept them alive when they thought they were going to die. They remembered the way Moses found water for them when they were dying of thirst. They did not expect to find that God, the God who they thought of as the mysterious saving power from their past, as close to them in the present, in something, indeed someone, as ordinary as a man from Nazareth called Jesus!
They are thus bewildered when Jesus says that the manna, the bread from heaven that their ancestors were saved by, is present with them now – in him. Jesus says “It was not Moses that gave you bread from heaven…. the true bread is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And then he says a very shocking thing, that he IS that bread of life that they have been talking about.
We Christians, of course, look back to a different saving event from those people. For us, that saving of a few people in the desert was just a foretaste of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the action of God that saves not just a few people but the whole world. For us, that wonderful event from the past, when God showed his love and power on the cross, encompasses every other action of God, from the glory of his creation that I experienced on Friday in that garden, to every event in every human life when people have felt supported or strengthened or inspired, and have known that God is with them
The remarkable thing about every Mass is therefore, that when the Priest holds up that small piece of bread, we are not looking simply at a piece of bread, nor simply at God’s presence with us now however wonderful that may be, but we are looking at God’s creative and saving activity through all time. The Most Holy Sacrament is like a Portal through which we meet all of God’s work – the formation of the Universe with the stars and the Sun –the Creation of life in all its forms, the History of human struggle to be a loving and caring part of that creation, and the culmination of all of that in the life and death and Resurrection of Jesus. We are meeting all of that in and through the Bread of Life, life with a capital L, that is held for us in the hands of the priest.
This action, in which all this is present, is summed up at Mass by one rather ordinary phrase. The Priest prays “We celebrate the memorial”. The problem is that the word “memorial” is for us something that just reminds us of the past. But the actual meaning here is much deeper. It comes from the word in Greek, the word Anamnesis, and celebrating the Anamnesis means much much more than just remembering the past; for it includes the whole process that I have been talking about, in which all the glory of God through time is made present for us in and through the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
But there is more! Because Jesus is not just a past event in history, nor simply God’s presence with us now. Jesus is also our future. Listen to words from the last book in the Bible, words often read at funerals :- “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”” (Rev 21: 3-6)
So not only is all the glory of God in the past made present for us at Mass, but also the glory of our future, beyond suffering and death, the glory that is our future within the glory of God. So the Priest does not just pray “We celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son etc” but he goes on “And… we look forward to his second coming.” Yes, at Mass all the saving action of God is made present for us, his past actions yes, especially in coming to us as Jesus, but also the future when in and through Jesus we are brought to the fullness of glory which is eternal life in him. As Jesus says in our Gospel, “Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life.”