Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
Eph 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32
Through the centuries,” notes Fr. James T. O’Connor in The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist (Ignatius Press, 2005, 2nd ed.), “the Church has consistently refused to mitigate the shock contained in the words of the Lord at Capernaum.” He explains that “dissent to the Church’s teaching is not only a phenomenon of the twentieth century; it has always existed.” Today’s Gospel reading, from the conclusion of John 6, records how dissent from the teachings of Jesus took place in the very first century.
This, revealingly, is the only instance in the Gospels of disciples leaving Jesus over a matter of doctrine.
There is little doubt that St. John, in describing that tense scene, also had in mind Christians of the mid and late first century who struggled to accept the shocking words of the Lord. It is sometimes tempting to think of the early Christians as a homogenous group of loyal heroes and willing martyrs. But they, like those of us living in the twenty-first century, struggled with doubts, fears, and temptations. We all know that polls indicate many Catholics today either doubt or even reject the Church’s teaching that “under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity” (CCC 1413).
Jesus’ teaching that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood is indeed a hard saying. Who can accept it? The answer to this vital question is, simply, every man who accepts God’s gift of faith. Just as baptism and entrance into the kingdom of God comes by being “born of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:5), so faith in the mystery of the Eucharist comes from the Spirit and the Father. The Father sent the Son and testified on his behalf (cf. Jn. 5:31-32); the Son sent the Holy Spirit, who also testified on his behalf (cf. Jn. 15:26).
Jesus posed two questions to those struggling with doubts: “Does this shock you?” and “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
The first question, I think, is somewhat rhetorical in nature. Jesus knew his words were shocking, but he wanted the disciples to know that he meant them to be shocking. He had not misspoken, nor had he resorted to hyperbole.
The second question harkens back to when Jesus first met Nathanael and promised him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (Jn. 1:51). The Ascension helped the disciples comprehend both the Incarnation and the Eucharist, in part because it showed that Jesus’ glorified body is not constrained by normal physical limits. Yes, it is flesh and blood, but it is also glorified and transformed; it is, in short, beyond our comprehension, and we must not force God into a box of materialist assumptions.
There are two other important questions in this reading. After some of the disciples had left, Jesus asked the Apostles: “Do you also want to leave?” Just as Joshua, many centuries before, had asked the people of Israel to renew their covenantal vows and swear allegiance to the Lord, Jesus asked the future leaders of the New Israel, the Church, to show their loyalty and commitment to the Kingdom. It was, without question, a great test of faith. Peter, as he had at Caesarea Philippi (cf. Matt. 16:16-20), spoke for all of them, answering with his own rhetorical question: “Master, to whom shall we go?”
Indeed, to whom? What are the options? The novelist Walker Percy once wrote that when he was ever asked why he became Catholic, “I usually reply, ‘What else is there?’” Who else has the words of eternal life? Who else can give the Spirit and life? Who else has descended from heaven, died on the Cross, rose from the dead, and ascended back to heaven?
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the August 23, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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