Every time I sat down to reflect on today’s readings, I couldn’t help but break into song when I reached the Gospel. Suzanne Toolan’s “I Am the Bread of Life” has been a longtime favorite of mine. It’s not the easiest of church songs to sing, and yet I love singing it – or at least trying to sing it. It is always an effort to reach the high notes and get the harmonies just right. Perhaps this is why one night my friends and I found ourselves in an empty tram between casinos in Las Vegas singing this song over and over again. For some reason, once we realized the acoustics were good, this is the song we chose to sing. The part of me that can’t believe I’m admitting to this here wishes I could blame our random behavior on a few too many cocktails, but there is another part of me that is grateful for the fact that I have the kind of friends that would not only think about it, but actually break out into church songs on a tram in Las Vegas…completely sober.
We laugh now when we think back on that night, but today as I reflect on the words of that song, it is the promise of the chorus that strikes me, “And I will raise you up, I will raise you up, I will raise you up on the last day!” This is part of the message we hear in today’s Gospel that picks up from the past few weeks. Addressing the crowds who struggle with his words, we hear Jesus state “Amen, amen, I say to you unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise [that person] on the last day.” Unless you eat, unless you drink, you do not have life within you, but whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood has eternal life. Eternal life.
This starts me thinking, and my thoughts wander to my classroom. I teach sophomores a course called Morality and Worship. I love the way the year long course is setup, interweaving the study of the sacraments, prayer and spirituality, with the study of Christian morality and moral decision making. It makes so much sense to me to go back and forth between the two textbooks instead of spending two seprate semesters on different topics since our Catholic spirituality and morality depend so much on each other that they really are two parts of one whole that can only work together. My students however, if given the choice, would rush through the sacraments as quickly as possible, to get to the “good” stuff and lively discussions that center on hot topics and moral issues facing our world today.
They look at me a little weary of my excitement when I talk about the importance of the Paschal Mystery and the integral role the Eucharist plays in our lives, and in turn, how our lives play into the Eucharist. Many of them are in a phase of questioning (a necessary and valid one I believe) where they aren’t so quick to buy into the faith tradition of their parents and families. “So, I’m supposed to believe that the bread and wine BECOME the body and blood of Jesus?” “What do you mean they aren’t just symbols?” “Can you explain that ‘real presence’ thing again?” “But how?!?” And going to mass on Sundays is usually the last way they’d like to spend their mornings. “My parish is just so boring! I don’t get why I have to go.” “My parents make me go, but I spend most of the time staring at the ceiling.” I can remember being there at one point and I try and pinpoint when exactly a transformation took place. When did all the teachings I heard at home and every year of Catholic school really become my own beliefs? Of course there is no one moment – our faith formation is truly gradual and never ending.
Yet, some days, I leave my classroom fearing that I haven’t done justice to this great mystery of our faith, wondering how I could have explained things a little better, or made the reality of my experience resonate more with the realities of my students. I think all I can do is listen openly and accept where my students are, share honestly and hope that whatever is supposed to reach the ones who are ready, will. All I can do, really, is offer an invitation. I’m reminded of the homily I heard on the Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola at LMU where I also work with first year college students. Fr. Erps, the Jesuit giving the homily, spoke about Ignatius in connection to our mission at LMU reminding us that “the most important part of education, as with formation, is invitation.” I take heart in this and in the words of the first reading, “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns; she has dressed her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table. She has sent out her maidens; she calls from the heights out over the city: ‘Let whoever is simple turn in here; To the one who lacks understanding, she says, Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.’” This reading is full of invitation, and again, a promise of life – of understanding.
I’m grateful for the invitation I find in today’s readings – the same one I’ve sung so many times in Toolan’s song, “all who come to me shall not hunger, all who believe in me shall not thirst.” And I’m even more grateful for the many people along my faith journey who made sure God’s invitation reached my eyes, ears, and heart. I hope in my own small way, what happens in my classrooms and in the dorms – what happens with the young people I interact with everyday – is helping to set the table and invite them to God’s great promise of life.
Tefi Ma’ake is a teacher and campus minister gearing up to return to the classroom after the much needed rest and renewal of summer vacation. She enjoys randomly breaking out into church songs with her friends. And she loves both receiving and sending out invitations.