HOMILY for 21st Sunday per annum (B)
For the last four Sundays we’ve been reading St John chapter six, and today we’ve come to the final part. It’s worth re-capping what’s happened so far. First, Christ feeds five thousand, a sign that Christ desires to feed God’s people both physically and spiritually. Both are necessary because Christ has come “that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). But St John doesn’t dwell on this miracle – it’s more of an introduction to catch our attention, leading to the bulk of the chapter, which is about being fed by Christ with the “food that endures to eternal life” (Jn 6:27). The people then ask for a “sign” that they may “see and believe” that Christ is from God. They ask him: “What work do you perform?” The lengthy discourse that follows answers their demand, and the sign that Jesus gives is the miracle of the Eucharist, a sign and work that only divine power can effect. The fact that Christ dares to teach this, without ever taking the opportunities to lessen the impact of his teaching, is the evidence he offers to those who want proof that he comes from God. As C.S. Lewis has said, Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or God.
Last week we heard how Jesus’ teaching caused scandal; it is forbidden in Jewish Law to drink any kind of blood. Surely Jesus is speaking metaphorically, symbolically? But Jesus insists that “my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed”. He doesn’t back down but uses even more graphic language: we’re to chew and gnaw on his flesh! And that is where we ended last Sunday, with these words ringing in the synagogue at Capernaum.
This week’s Gospel plunges straight into the drama as the disciples make plain that they find it difficult to cope with this teaching. The Lord is given a final chance to relent, to change his words, to refine what he’s said. But he doesn’t.
Rather, he just repeats what he’d said earlier: “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father”. In other words, God alone can and will give the faith that is required to accept and believe him. And “the flesh is of no avail”, meaning that the natural sciences cannot explain the Eucharist, nor can our everyday human experiences help us.
Hence, the Eucharist is the mystery of faith par excellence. Until 1969, the words “mysterium fidei”, the ‘mystery of faith’ were said right after the Consecration of the Precious Blood to refer to what had just happened in the Mass, as bread and wine become, at Christ’s Word and by the instrumentality of his priest, Christ’s own Body and Blood. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was the mystery, the great sign and work of God that elicited a response of faith, of complete trust in the Word and teaching of Christ. So, Pope Paul VI reiterated in 1968 on behalf of the whole Church: “We believe that the mysterious presence of the Lord, under what continues to appear to our senses as before, is a true, real and substantial presence”. And we Catholics have continually affirmed this hard teaching, even at the cost of division among us Christians, and even if we don’t fully understand how it happens. Why? Because of who first insisted on this teaching: Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be God, and whom we know to be the Truth. So, we trust his Word. As St Thomas Aquinas said: “The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority”.
But not everyone responds well to authority, even divine authority. Hence the people murmured. That is (quite literally) a buzzword for distrust of God, and for rebellion. It is used in Exodus when the people of Israel murmur against Moses and Aaron, preferring slavery in Egypt to following the Lord in the desert. And so, something unique happens: “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went with him”. This is the only time the Gospel tells of people leaving Christ because of his teaching. But he doesn’t stop them – that’s how important this teaching is.
And then, Christ turns to his closest disciples, and asks: “Will you also go away?” Because he, God, is Love, he doesn’t force us to come to the truth but gives us freedom – freedom to choose the good and the true, freedom to trust and believe him. Faith is like this, breathing the freedom of the Spirit, life-giving and without compulsion. And this is the faith Christ invites us to when he asks us too: “Will you also go away?”
Even though Jesus’ teaching may be difficult and maybe even impossible to understand – and this, as we know, is not the only one – even so, Jesus invites us to make an act of faith, to place our trust in his Word, and to allow him to gradually teach us. That is what discipleship entails, and St Peter speaks for the true disciple: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. Such beautiful and simple but also frightening words of faith and trust. And he adds “We have believed, and have come to know”. In these two verbs we see the movement of discipleship. First we just trust and remain with the Lord, maybe without really understanding, and perhaps, still confused. But then, in time, as we mature and continue to seek answers from the Lord, our minds are broadened to accept the infinite freedom and possibilities of God, and we come to know his wisdom and truth. This is the movement of faith, and from this October the successor of St Peter, Pope Benedict, invites us to celebrate a Year of Faith. It will be a time to deepen our knowledge of Christ’s teachings, to grow in faith, and to intensify our discipleship of the Lord, so that we draw closer to him.
We find this movement of faith, too, in Holy Communion, if we’re open to it, because the Eucharist teaches us and transforms us to become Christ, so that we don’t just believe in him but grow to know him intimately. So, St Augustine imagines the Lord saying to him: “I am the food of grown men; grow, and you shall feed upon me; nor shall you change me, like the food of your flesh, into yourself, but you shall be changed into me”. For what happens is that because we love Christ and his Word of truth, and, in faith, we remain in him, so he will remain in us, and unite us to himself. So, as Pope Benedict put it: “We never have [truth]; at best it has us”. And when Truth, God himself, has us, when we’re possessed by Love, then we enjoy eternal life!