Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Memory of Marie Antoinette and the Memory of Bread from Heaven

The 2006 film version of the life of Marie Antoinette was not considered a great success. It's director, Sofia Coppola, had eschewed both the standard historical tragedy and the then-popular "biopic" and presented an image of Antoinette that had more in common with the New Wave groups of the early 80's than David O. Selznick's production of A Tale of Two Cities. There influence of Siouxie Sioux and Adam Ant were apparent in both style and soundtrack. Although Marie Antoinette was torn apart in the domestic box office ($15 million dollars made on a $40 million dollar would make its money back overseas) as well as by critics, it also painted a gorgeously horrific picture of invincible ignorance and decadence. 

The film is far kinder to Marie Antoinette than the mob who gathers at Versailles at the end of the film, but there is a tragedy in her (at least in her film incarnation) not coming to terms with life outside of the palace sooner than she did. She is never shown as ever have knowing any better than what the royalty and the aristocracy had allowed her to see. Her aloofness is endearing in the world she lives in. She's set apart for her simplicity and innocence. But that means nothing to a starving, filthy, and oppressed mob and her values mean little in the sight of that. She has seen so little and the truth is in the big picture.

Today's readings in the Lectionary deal with a similar conflict between reality and appearances. The centerpiece of this second set of Sunday readings (in a 5 week cycle) are what's known as Jesus' "Bread of Life" discourse from the 6th chapter of John's Gospel. The Church reads this section of John as his Eucharistic theology par excellence. John's Gospel is quite a bit different than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all of whom share a certain literary similarity. One major difference involves Jesus' words in instituting the Eucharist. While Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul all recount what Jesus said during the actual meal ("this is my body...this is my blood"), John does not. John's theology of the Eucharist, however, is woven deep within the narrative fabric, from John the Baptist's first recognition of Jesus as the "Lamb of God" to the parallels between the crucifixion and the Passover sacrifice. The Gospel itself is very Eucharistic and the early Christian communities would only have to listen to the words of the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper to see the allusions.

Today's selection from John's Gospel involves Jesus trying to communicate His role in God's work through a cultural memory familiar to his audience. We're given a window into that memory through the first reading from the book of Exodus. After their deliverance from 400 years of slavery, God's people are wandering in the wilderness. They begin to starve and yearn to return to Egypt, their place of slavery, for want of food. They "grumble" or "murmur" (תּלֻנָּה/t®l¥nnâ) about their plight. When God tells Moses "I have heard the grumblings of the Israelites", he is aware that their ire is directed towards him and not Moses or Aaron.

The "te-lunna" of the people will only lead to trouble for the ancient Israelites because they cannot trust the God who delivered them from slavery and find themselves hostile to his continued guidance. Much later in John's Gospel the people will find themselves feeling similarly towards Jesus. John spells out the parallels between Jesus and Moses, but John is also even more clear about Jesus as God's dwelling among His own people. John chapter 6 is a turning point in the Gospel. The section begins with Jesus' "public approval" rating at an all time high. He worked a miracle where 5,000 people were fed by what began as five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowds are so taken with this experience that, when he leaves them by boat, they are already on the other side of the Sea of Galilee to meet him when he arrives. 

Yet by the end of John chapter 6 Jesus' words have created a crisis among his listeners and many become hostile. What we remember as an almost mystical, contemplative teaching on the Eucharist has led to disputes and complaints. As if to drive the point home, John's Gospel will use the Greek word γογγύζω/gonguzo, a word that is often used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to refer to the Israelite's murmuring in the wilderness at the time of Moses. In the past the Israelites murmured against God in the wilderness despite the good things he had done and it would appear that history has repeated itself.

It is precisely this "murmuring" that provoked God's response in feeding his hungry people with "manna", bread that God rained down from the sky to feed his people. The manna signifies a time of intimacy with God as it marked Israel's complete reliance on God as they left Egypt. They could not provide the food for themselves so, therefore, God had to do it. The image of God feeding his people was of "bread from heaven" and it's on this point that Jesus will connect this manna with himself. Jesus is now the bread that came down from heaven and though he will continue to elucidate this point over the course of this passage, it is clear that Jesus wants his listeners to focus on God and the one whom he had sent...Jesus himself. The source of God's goodness will not be apparent in the one standing before them. 

There is a tension between what we see, what we have seen, and what we hope to see happen. In the Exodus, Israel had witnessed God's work in rescuing them from Egypt and sustaining them in their times of trouble. That experience lived only as a collective cultural memory by the time of Jesus, but in John's Gospel the people still speak with the weight of their collective experience (cf. John 8:33). They speak of God but they haven't seen him. They speak as their ancestors but they didn't see what they saw. The trust their tradition but it is not their experience. The experience of Jesus is a crisis for his listeners because they have now been inserted into the drama of their ancestors. God is now present and they can see him. In fact they can see him far better than Moses who, though God spoke to him "face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (Exodus 33:11) still only managed to see God from the back, obscured because his glory was so great (Exodus 33:21-23). Now they can all see God and what they see is...a man. This very man who they have known from childhood. They are aware of his parents and they know his trade. He appears ordinary and his words make no sense based on appearances.

Yet they have seen loaves and fishes multiplied and the sick healed. They have heard unearthly wisdom and they have heard the testimony of the wise and the holy. They see so little and the truth is in the big picture.

I often find myself returning to this section of the Gospels when I speak to families in my work. It's necessary to return to the reappraisal of the world as we see it and the world as it is. Often, the two concepts are conflated, that the world we can see is the only one there is. We live at a time when we can perceive things at the subatomic level while having the technology to perceive deep space. What can possibly be left? But just as the Israelites could not see beyond their hunger in the wilderness and many of Jesus' listeners could not see beyond the human being standing in front of them, we find ourselves in a tension between sight and hope, between proof and promise, between fact and truth. All of them are valid but we shouldn't mistake dismissal of the problems they pose to actually resolving them.

I also love the image of Jesus coming from Heaven so that we might better experience God. The images he gives are sensual and almost too crude for what we often mistake for spirituality. God came to what I am and what I have so I can better become who He is.

“Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”

So they said to him,
“Sir, give us this bread always.” 
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” 
-John 6:32-35

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