The pastoral care Lectionary intersects with some of the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday. Or Thursday if you live in special Catholic places that don’t move feasts to the weekend:
Jesus said to the people,
“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.
There are important things to remember about the Fourth Gospel. The evangelist presents Jesus as bringing something altogether new into the world. In pagan cultures people sacrificed of themselves to their gods. Harvests, what they hunted, and even persons precious to them. Or not so precious.
Even in Judaism, plants and animals were sacrificed. Children not really. Perhaps vanquished military foes. But all for God.
Jesus changes this, and perhaps in our more sanitized Christian cultures we don’t recognize the shift. Jesus introduces a wholly new idea: God sacrifices for people. The Eucharistic language of Catholics: “priest, victim, and altar” might obscure the astonishing shift. In the sixth chapter of this Gospel, people are alarmed enough that a beloved rabbi suggests a kind of cannibalism. To Christians, the language is routine. It no longer shocks us. It’s downright orthodox.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,
and I will raise (them) on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in (them).
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Everything about the Bread of Life Discourse suggest Jesus is turning the universe upside-down. What does that mean for the sick and dying?
For starters, it is now human beings who find themselves in the abiding presence of Christ who will be immortal. It is God who will experience sacrifice and death. That sacrifice includes the person who is ill. Jesus came for the fulfillment of life. He is the Life. People and their ancestors are not responsible for accidents or illness (except in the case of negligent or sinful behavior). Infirmity is the opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed. (Cf. John 9:3)
Only seriously sick people can discover what this glory means. Perhaps the experience of receiving Communion, or at the end of life, Viaticum. Maybe it involves a deepening of faith, or an awareness of movement into a new upended reality themselves: from health to sickness, from middle age to becoming an elder, from caring for others to being cared for. All of these turn our world upside down, as Jesus upended monotheistic religion twenty centuries ago. Perhaps we can take come comfort to know he has gone here too, showing us the way, and leading us into something altogether new.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.