20th Sunday B
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
We have been listening for the past couple of weeks to what is perhaps the most difficult text in the Gospels, certainly difficult to understand, and even more difficult to accept. It is one of the dividing lines between faith and unbelief, and not just faith and unbelief with reference to these words and what they tell us about the Eucharist, but ultimately faith or unbelief in the One who spoke them. In fact, we know that these words spoken by Jesus precipitated an immediate chasm between those who would remain his followers and believe in Him as the true Son of God, who gives His very flesh and blood in the Eucharist as the food for Eternal Life, and those who would find these words scandalous and too difficult to believe and would no longer believe in Him and follow Him.
Because of these words about the Eucharist, it was really quite impossible to split the act of faith, and believe in Him, while refusing to believe in the literal sense of His words, the literal truth that the Eucharist is truly His body and blood, and that His body and blood is truly the food of the believer which brings him or her Eternal Life. They had the opportunity to look for a deeper meaning to his words and easily could have questioned him about their true meaning as they were wont to do on other occasions. The fact that they did not question him or even perhaps challenge him is a confirmation that they could not mistake the meaning he was giving to his words, so emphatic was his language and so often repeated in this discourse – how many times would he have to say it to make it clearer?
I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him
Five times Jesus refers to his flesh and blood as food and drink which will give us Eternal Life and will raise our bodies from the dead. And we are told by Scripture scholars that the word Jesus used telling us that we must eat this food is a verb of astounding realism, literally “to munch on,” to eat in the most natural sense. No, the stunned silence of the crowd and their going away without even asking what he meant, indicates that they knew quite well that he meant this eating in a quite literal sense, and they were horrified and scandalized and so they went away. Like the rich young man who could not give up his riches, it seems many if not most all the people who heard those words went a way sad because they could no longer believe in Him, and their hope that Jesus was the longed-for Messiah was dashed.
From that time to the time of the great Protestant revolt against Rome and the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, Christians, those who believed in Christ as God’s Son also believed in the most realistic meaning of the Eucharist as a true food, a true sacrament which contained and signified the true body and blood of the Risen Lord. Faith in Jesus was faith also in the literal though mysterious presence of Jesus in the most Holy Eucharist. But over the past 500 years we have this strange schism in the faith of many Christians, originating in the teaching of the leaders of the Protestant movement, where faith in the Divinity of Christ was somehow separated from faith in the living, substantial presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist and the Eucharist as the true re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
Now this chasm within faith itself, this profession of faith in Jesus as God coupled with disbelief in the realistic meaning of Jesus’ words about the real, substantial presence of Christ and His sacrificial offering of Himself in the Eucharist could not but end in disaster for the faith of many, who would follow Him no longer. This had been the faith of the Church from the beginning, as testified most strongly by the Fathers of the early Church, and they saw the link between faith in Christ and faith in the Eucharist as His Body and blood.
Today we are witnessing the consequences of this chasm in the loss of faith among so many Christians in the divinity of Jesus Christ. It is not simply a matter of disbelief in the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist as Christ’s true body and blood that we see today, but the massive loss of faith in the divinity itself of Jesus Christ, and especially in those nations which were so impacted by the Protestant reformation and its teaching. Today in Europe, the Christian faith has been lost in the vast majority of the peoples who were among the first to be Christianized in the north of Europe, and it is rapidly being lost now in the south as well as the culture of unbelief takes hold throughout the European Union.
But when we meditate upon the whole context of Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, it really should not surprise us that this loss of faith is happening. It has other causes to be sure, for instance the massive abandonment of the Church’s moral teachings over the course of the 20th Century. But loss of faith in the Eucharist is surely the central cause. Just as rejection of the realism in the Eucharistic teaching of Jesus in His own day led to massive abandonment of his followers then, so now has the logic of the massive rejection of this same teaching five hundred years ago led to the massive apostasy of Christians today throughout the western world, where this religious upheaval has had its greatest impact. The marvelous thing is that it took so long to work out its logical consequences, a sign of God’s great mercy on the masses of people who were through no fault of their own separated from the true faith of the Church in the Eucharist which is from the beginning.
The fact is, Jesus never once retracted the words he spoke that day, and this is most clear from their being recorded in the last of the Gospels to be handed down to us, the Gospel of St. John. Certainly, had Jesus ever modified his words to overcome this mass apostasy that occurred among his earliest devotees – for they may never have been true believers as John implies at least in an epistle – then John would have surely made that clear. In fact, we might surmise that this discourse is recorded only in John, who is the only one of the four to omit the actual institution of the Eucharist, precisely to counteract any tendency that might have emerged to soften this teaching in the Church, to make it more acceptable to the weaker in faith. John blocks any such softening then and till the end of time by giving us the account of Jesus’ words that caused the first great schism among his followers. Jesus became on that day the sign of contradiction that would divide men, including Christians, until the end of time.
Now St. John placed all this drama in the broader context of faith in the early part of that Chapter 6, if you can remember it from a few weeks ago. Recall how Jesus began this conversation, by telling those who caught up with Him after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, that what God wanted from them was belief in Himself: to believe in Him. The when they ask about him for a miracle like the Manna their ancestors ate, Jesus says “truly, truly I say to you” which is another way of saying “believe me,” and then goes into his full teaching on the Eucharist. But the key is this introductory phrase “believe me.” Shortly into this teaching, he repeats this faith theme when he says “and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” And he then adds immediately, “But you, as have I told you, that although you have seen [me], you do not believe.” And he concludes this opening part of his teaching on the Eucharist with this: But I told you that although you have seen [me], you do not believe.”
Then a little further on, Jesus again returns to the theme of faith when he says: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him [on] the last day.” Thus Jesus links the resurrection to faith in Him, and says he will raise up those who believe in Him. Then he strengthens this teaching on faith in Him a couple of lines later: “It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, Truly, [Believe me] I say to you, whoever believes [in me] has eternal life.”
Now the key to all that follows, i.e. the whole teaching on the Eucharist, is that people must have faith in Him in order to accept this teaching, that they must be taught by God to believe in Jesus and thus to believe what he is about to teach them about His Body and Blood being their spiritual food. For it is not simply faith in Jesus that raises a man to eternal life, but also the eating of the Body and Blood, which one cannot fruitfully do without believing in Him and His word.
However, to believe in Jesus is not dependant on one’s IQ or on earthly wisdom. Faith is an unconditional surrender to His word, understood in the precise sense that he gives to it. And those first hearers of His Word bear witness to their unbelief when they walk away without questioning Him and also bear witness to the fact that he had made it abundantly clear by his language that he meant it to be taken quite literally as to its realism.
Thus St. Paul warns us in today’s second reading not to confuse faith with earthly wisdom: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
And likewise the first reading from the Proverbs says: “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns. …. ‘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.”
Believers are truly the little ones, the humble ones who by faith have turned to God’s Wisdom, and thus they have eaten of God’s bread and God’s wine, the Body and Blood of God’s Son, at the Eucharistic table. Thus they have left blindness and foolishness behind and now walk in the way of understanding. They are the truly wise, and they are blessed by Jesus Himself. Recall His rejoicing in Matthew and Luke: “he rejoiced [in] the holy Spirit and said, ‘I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.’”
The Eucharist is the heavenly food for the simple believer, and it will always be so. Faith in Our Lord as God and man cannot be sustained forever without a correct belief in and reception of the Holy Eucharist. May our faith always be firm and our lives holy, feeding on the Bread of Life, the self-gift of Jesus in the Eucharist, and may this greatest of the Sacraments one day also raise us up to be with Him forever, Amen