For the past several Sundays, our Gospel reading has focused on chapter 6 of St. John’s gospel, what is often referred to as the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse. This week, we pick up where we left off last week, as Jesus addresses a large crowd, telling them how He is the bread of life, and that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life. This particular chapter speaks a great deal to our understanding of that most sacred of mysteries that we celebrate every time we gather for Holy Mass, the Eucharist. Is it something that is easy for us to grasp? Often times, not in our human understanding. Yet as difficult or challenging as this may be for us, it may be helpful to see how challenging it was when Jesus first shared this teaching.
This crowd that Jesus speaks to is made up not just of people who out of curiosity had come to hear what Jesus had to say; a large number of them were people who considered themselves disciples of Jesus, including the 12 Apostles. These were people who had followed him for some period of time, had heard his teaching, and claimed to be his followers. It’s also important for us to note that the overwhelming majority of the people who heard this teaching, both the curious and disciples, were Jewish; according to their dietary laws, it was forbidden to consume the blood of animals; blood equaled life – and as bad as it would be to consume animal blood, even moreso it would be unthinkable to consume human flesh and blood. These words of Jesus to the crowd were not just surprising or a little bit challenging; they were shocking!
We read how the people started to dispute these words among themselves – and at this point Jesus had the opportunity to step back from the severity of these words, this lesson; but he doesn’t – in fact, he repeats it even more strongly; ‘unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life within you’.
What this is, really, is an ‘all or nothing’ proposition. Jesus invites us through the mystery of the Eucharist to take him into ourselves – body and blood, soul and divinity – and to become so deeply connected and identified with him that we, (as St. Augustine once observed) become what we eat. More properly, it should be we become who we eat. And in his strongly worded teaching, Jesus tells us directly that unless we allow him into the very depth of our being, becoming more closely identified to him, we have no life within us.
Yet he leaves that choice up to us; we can either receive this gift in completeness, or we can reject it. But there is no ‘partial’ acceptance of it – this is not a proposal of percentages. Jesus says either you accept him completely or you don’t. If you would have life, you accept this intimate connection to Him – to reject this intimate connection to him is to reject eternal life. In this discourse his language is rather blunt and rather plain.
How do we respond to this proposal? Do we say, well Jesus was a good teacher, or a nice guy or a great philosopher, but he didn’t really mean what he was saying. Or do we hold to the faith which has been handed down to us from the beginning of the Church, that Jesus was not just a good teacher or a nice guy, but the Son of God ? That he was crucified, died and rose from the dead? As the second person of the Holy Trinity, he has that same creative and restorative power that was present ‘in the beginning’ when all things were made, when all things came to be through God’s word. If we can accept that all things came into being through God’s word, why should we find it so difficult to accept that God the Son would give himself to us repeatedly through the Eucharist, when His creative word is used in the Sacramental action at Mass?
To respond to this offer of Jesus’, it is actually a very simple choice to make; not necessarily easy to live out, but the choice is very simple; we either accept or we don’t. We will be like the crowds depicted in John’s gospel; we may have questions like the people and his disciples, but we will have to decide; do we live in truth and faith, or do we back away because living in truth and faith is simply too much work? We will have a choice to make.
And it truly must be an ‘all or nothing’ response.
But the generosity and goodness of God continues for us even when we struggle to live out this choice – we are graced with the gifts of faith and hope whenever we open ourselves to accept Christ himself, present to us in Holy Communion. If we completely choose Him, then He will not abandon us; when we receive Him, we can be sure that He is really and truly with us, giving us the gift of His Life; that we may carry Him into the world, and beyond, into the eternal life he promises us.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!