Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a desert road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
Now the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."
The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Bless our God, you peoples,
loudly sound his praise;
He has given life to our souls,
and has not let our feet slip. (R./)
Hear now, all you who fear God, while I declare
what he has done for me.
When I appealed to him in words,
praise was on the tip of my tongue. (R./)
Blessed be God who did not refuse
my prayer but showed me his kindness! (R./)
No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, "And they shall all be taught by God." Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
God was already drawing the Ethiopian toward faith. This highly-placed eunuch was a God-fearing gentile who believed in Israel's God, and followed whatever Torah rules were compatible with his family life and culture. The Spirit was attracting this man to a deeper understanding of life, through reading Isaiah's Suffering-Servant Songs. As Philip the deacon headed south along the route taken by the Ethiopian's chariot, Providence was clearly at work. The man was grappling with the Scriptures, but still felt unable to understand their mysterious message. "Do you really grasp what you are reading?" asks Philip, and the African politely replies, "How can I unless someone explains it to me?" When he heard how the mysterious Suffering Servant Song points to Jesus' death on the cross, the Ethiopian asks to be baptized and he is at once welcomed into the church. Notice the steps of his conversion, not so much as a progression from sin to grace, but as grasping the opportunity offered by grace, and wanting its full realization.
Like the Ethiopian we must be "God-fearers," reverencing what God is doing in our lives. Like this foreigner, we should join regularly in worship, as he did in the temple. The Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah Chapter 53 which he felt to be profound even while he did not understand to whom or what it referred. He waited for the Lord to enlighten him. When he met Philip he was very soon ready to be received into the church. The Ethiopian asked for baptism, and the door of the church was opened wide for him. This hospitable church is the ideal persuasively urged on us by Pope Francis -- a desire to let the joy of the Gospel shine on the lives of all who are ready to welcome it. And then we see how the good news was spread, when the Ethiopian journeyed home to bring the faith to his own country.
Through the church we receive not only baptism and new life in Jesus but also the bread or nourishment to sustain that life strong and vigorous. The gospel tells us: "I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread that one shall live forever.
In the first reading the Ethiopian returning home from his pilgrimage stops to read the Scriptures and is very touched by a passage in Isaiah. This leads him to ask questions which later leads to his receiving baptism into the church at the hands of Philip. Then in the gospel Jesus speaks of the bread that he will give for the life of the world, a clear reference to the Eucharist. We have the elements of word, baptism and eucharist in our two readings. Each of them is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In our own lives, the sequence is usually: baptism, word, eucharist. We were baptized as infants; then introduced to Jesus through the stories in the gospels, with pieces of the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul, and the great texts of the Jewish Scriptures. That in turn led to receiving the Eucharist. For us who have been baptized, the connection between Word and Eucharist remains very close. At every Mass we first have the Liturgy of the Word, and then the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Word nourishes our faith, and it is out of that nourished faith that we come to the Eucharist. The bread of the Word prepares us for the bread of the Eucharist. The bread of the word is a necessary first course, as it were, preparing us to receive the Eucharist well.