The radical attitude taken by Our Lord in the face of His Apostles’ perplexity at the revelation of the Eucharist shows us the need for complete adherence to the truth.
Gospel of the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
60 60 Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” 61 Since Jesus knew that His disciples were murmuring about this, He said to them, “Does this shock you? 62 What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray Him. 65 And He said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted him by my Father.” 66 As a result of this, many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him. 67 Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” 68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:60-69).
I – God Does Not Want Divided Hearts
T he spiritual life of every baptized person, whether a priest, religious or a lay person, is marked by a decisive moment in which God grants the soul special graces to categorically reject evil and to surrender to Him definitively, with no possibility of turning back.
Just such a situation is portrayed in this Sunday’s first reading (Jos 24:1-2, 15-18), in which we see Joshua gathering the tribes of Israel in Shechem and presenting them with this choice: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling” (24:15).
The leader of Israel took this approach because he perceived the imminent occasion of sin which the people would face upon becoming settled in the Promised Land. In contact with the pagans remaining there, the tendency would be to mix idolatry with true religion, practising the latter half-heartedly while seeking to benefit from the former. Let us remember that while they were crossing the desert and Moses was receiving the tablets of the Law on Sinai, the Israelites had erected a molten metal calf as a god, to which they built an altar and offered sacrifices (cf. Ex 32:1-6).
The Most High is not pleased with divided hearts; He is a jealous God, zealous of a worship that is rendered exclusively to Him. And for this reason Joshua, knowing the weaknesses of his compatriots and skilled in guiding others, presents the problem in such a way as to incite them from the outset to anchor themselves in the worship of the one God. They were then filled with noble sentiments and declared their rejection of idolatry: “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods” (24:16).
The decision to place oneself totally in God’s hands, promising Him fidelity, seals a covenant between the soul and its Creator that is like a mystical espousal. St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians from the second reading (Eph 5:21-32) increase our understanding of this reality. Although in their literal sense they apply to the union of man and wife through the Sacrament of Matrimony, the Church frames them in today’s Liturgy as a reference to the indissoluble bond existing between every believer and Our Lord Jesus Christ, which demands on our part an integral adhesion to Him, submission to His will and reciprocity in love.
The decision Joshua imposes on the Chosen People is repeated in a subtle but more substantial way in the Gospel. After preparing the Apostles, the disciples and public opinion by means of miracles, preaching and, above all, graces of faith, the Saviour invites them to take a decisive step in becoming members of His Mystical Body, the Church, which He will soon found.
II – Faith: Indispensable Virtue for the Soul to Choose the Good
The Divine Master was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, the day after the first multiplication of the loaves. That night He had walked on the waters of the Sea of Tiberias before the terrified disciples, and He had also made St. Peter walk on them, saving him from sinking when he doubted (cf. Mt 14:24-33).
Those present were, for the most part, the crowd that had benefited from the loaves the day before. As Jesus himself observes, they came to Him not because of the miracle, but rather because they wanted to taste that delicious food again (cf. Jn 6:26). Thus, Our Lord admonishes them: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (Jn 6:27).
It is in this context that the Saviour announces the mystery of the Eucharist, a great novelty, the institution of which no one could have even imagined at that time, with the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She had full knowledge of this wonderful Sacrament and was eager to receive it, as we see in the episode of the marriage at Cana (cf. Jn 2:3-5). As the author has previously observed,1 in communicating the lack of wine to her Son, Our Lady hoped that He would take the opportunity not only to convert the water into the best drink of the feast, but also to work the miracle of transubstantiation, providing His Most Precious Blood to drink, veiled under the fruit of the vine.
St. John carefully, lovingly and accurately recorded all that Jesus said in that discourse on the Bread of Life and, in relating it, he made a point of indicating the reaction of those present: first murmuring (cf. Jn 6:41); and then indignation, to the point that a dispute arose among them (cf. Jn 6:52).
In fact, if taken in the strict sense of the terms, those extraordinary statements of Our Lord would have sounded absurd; some of them even seemed shocking and violent – such as this one, for example, which appeared to encourage the pagan practice of human sacrifices: “Whoever 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” (Jn 6:54-55).
However, let us not forget that God always grants us the supernatural help necessary to pass any test to which He subjects us. Thus, the commotion which Jesus’ words provoked only reveals the interior attitude of rejection of grace adopted by those murmurers.
When Our Lord concluded His preaching, there was a new stirring of discontent. This time it did not come from the members of the general public, many of whom had perhaps already left the room as a sign of disapproval of the doctrine that had just been set out.
It is at this point in St. John’s text that today’s Gospel begins
The greater the gift, the greater the faith required
60 Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it”
In addition to the Apostolic College, several disciples accompanied Our Lord in His daily life, including His evangelizing journeys. It would seem that these were the former followers of St. John the Baptist, who had certainly received from the Precursor proper instruction regarding the Messiah. Admitted to the school of the Divine Master, they had been formed by Him in a closer relationship than the people in general, having already witnessed countless miracles.
In view of such prerogatives, a little good will was enough for these disciples not to feel disconcerted by the preaching. If they had docilely accepted the graces Jesus granted even while He was speaking to them, everything would have become clear. However, they put obstacles in the way…
The Eucharist would be a greater gift by far than the miracles already performed by Our Lord, but it would also require a more robust faith because, unlike miracles that can be verified by the human senses, it was under the appearances of simple substances like bread and wine that His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity would truly be present. Thus, it was a very different matter from the healing of a cripple or the resurrection of someone from the dead.
If those disciples had only been generous, they would have glimpsed something sublime behind everything Jesus said, even without understanding it; their faith would have been consolidated and they would have experienced the joy proper to souls firmly rooted in goodness. But since they preferred egoism, they ended up closing themselves to grace and began to complain.
How often throughout history have men reacted in this way before the great revelations of God and the offerings He has made!
Jesus challenges the objectors
61 Since Jesus knew that His disciples were murmuring about this, He said to them, “Does this shock you? 62 What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?”
Our Lord questions the objectors by raising a theme even bolder than the previous one. If the Eucharist shocked them, what would they think upon hearing Him affirm that He was God, the Son of Man come down from Heaven?
They understood nothing about the Eucharist because they lacked the light of faith, without which it is impossible for the human mind to accept supernatural truths. Thus, the difficulties that presented themselves in the face of the Eucharistic mystery would be repeated, perhaps in a stronger way, in the face of the events that would conclude the earthly life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity incarnate.
Verse 62 applies to two circumstances in history: one has already occurred, when Christ ascended into heaven forty days after the Resurrection; the other will come to pass at the end of the world, after the Last Judgement, when the righteous still alive on earth will also be taken up to meet Him (cf. 1 Thes 4:17). What a disgrace for the condemned, separated from the Redeemer forever, to see Him ascend in glory with all the blessed!
“The flesh is of no avail”
63 “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.”
Desirous of helping those men whose intelligence was neither lazy nor dim, but rather hardened against faith, Jesus adds these rather enigmatic phrases.
It should be noted that the word “flesh” in this verse does not refer to impurity or lack of chastity, but to the tendency to consider all things through a merely human prism. In fact, in matters relating to the supernatural life, naturalistic judgement “is of no avail.” It is the Spirit who gives us the true vision: “God exists, He created me, He sustains me in being, He redeemed me and He is ready to forgive my sins!”
Considered in another light, this admonition holds a valuable theological teaching. In Jesus there are two natures, the divine and the human. The latter is created and contingent; the former is eternal and necessary. If His flesh were not hypostatically united with the divinity, it would be of no avail, that is, it could not be offered as our food in Communion.
We can also glean an important spiritual lesson from this passage, if we consider it from yet another angle: those who are in a state of mortal sin should not receive the Eucharist – not only because of the sacrilege involved, but also because this action will be of no avail in restoring supernatural life to their soul.
Lack of faith and betrayal
64 “But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray Him.
In order to emphasize the divinity of the Saviour, the Evangelist attests that Jesus knew “from the beginning” – that is, not only from the moment He called His first followers, but from all eternity – those who did not believe and who the traitor would be. He thus establishes a relationship between lack of faith and betrayal, leading us to realize how fundamental this virtue is for us, the baptized, also called to become disciples of Jesus.
Our faith must be applied to the Church, with her perennial doctrine and her Sacraments; to Heaven, Hell and the Judgement; to the intercession of heavenly patrons, to Our Lady’s protection and to the power of the Rosary; to the words of the priest when celebrating Mass; to all of this. Faith is a divine gift so powerful that when it attains the size of a mustard seed it moves mountains! It is also the element that makes us sure, strong and ready to carry out any work for the glory of God. With faith, everything is possible!
If we do not want to be counted among those “who would not believe” or, even worse, to be numbered alongside Judas, let us begin by cherishing this virtue, never letting the dramas and difficulties of life overwhelm us.
65 And He said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted him by my Father.”
All of us who are baptized believe in Our Lord Jesus not by our own initiative, but by a grace granted by the Father. However much culture, dedication and good will one may have, without grace one will never succeed in making an act of faith in the God-Man, much less in giving oneself to Him, loving Him and understanding Him.
The Father wants to give this gift to all men without exception, but even among those whom He has already drawn to the Son, there are some who prefer their own egoism, ending in apostasy and perhaps even betrayal.
Whoever does the will of God never fails
66 As a result of this, many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him.
It could appear that this verse records a failure experienced by Our Lord. It is enough to read chapter 6 of John to see how He had worked hard to prepare people for this extraordinary revelation: He multiplied the loaves, walked on water and, finally, made a stupendous exposition in the synagogue. However, when the time came to reap the fruits of so much apostolate, He lost a number of followers…
Now, everything that happens with Our Lord Jesus Christ – even the simple blink of an eye! – is the fulfilment of God’s will, and it will never be a failure. Similarly, whatever happens to the just is in God’s plan and must be accepted with resignation; even if our best wishes seem to be frustrated, with Him we shall always achieve success.
At the moment when disaster befalls us, we do not understand why God has done so with us, just as perhaps the Apostles did not understand the reason why the Master proceeded in this way. Here is the theological principle that should guide us in such situations: if He has done so, then He has done what is most perfect. Even when it seems to us that everything has gone wrong, let us know that this setback will bring an even greater brilliance to God’s plan for the whole of history.
Jesus urges the Apostles to define themselves
67 Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Due to the instinct of sociability, man feels the need to lean on his fellow human beings, relating to them and forming friendships. This was the case in the circle of Jesus’ followers, among the Apostles and the disciples. Therefore, the desertion of a good number of the latter created a psychological vacuum in the Twelve, leaving them insecure.
It is then that Our Lord, showing a radicalism likely to alarm today’s relativists, instead of diluting the truth that He had just revealed in order not to provoke new defections, demands a resolution from the Apostles, almost forcing them to make a confession of faith: “They have left. And what about you? Is the faith that I have given you firm enough to adhere to Me completely, or do you prefer to follow the others, led by the desire to be part of the group? Do you want to be like them, or do you want to follow Me?”
St. Peter sustains the perseverance of all the others
68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God.”
St. Peter’s attitude was perfect. With his characteristic readiness to speak, he addressed radical and intransigent words to the Master that swept the Apostles off their feet, dispelled any insecurity and rekindled their first fervour towards Jesus: “Lord, the way to holiness and happiness is You, and there is no other!”
In this passage we see the reflection of an interesting phenomenon of life in society: there are people who influence others towards virtue, serving as a support for them to follow the good path; and there are also bad elements, who play the role of the devil with others. Human coexistence is like a permanent escalator: either it raises souls towards God or it drags them down into sin.
Encouraged by the voice of St. Peter, the Apostles were not shaken by those who had abandoned Our Lord, and they remained with Him. Such is the power of the “words of eternal life,” embraced with full conviction by the future Head of the Church. They are words that penetrate hearts, convert and transform; words that instil fear, courage and enthusiasm; words that impart steadfastness in the faith to those who follow them.
III – An Indissoluble Covenant with Jesus
The Liturgy for this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time calls us to adhere completely to Our Lord Jesus Christ and to grow in devotion to the Eucharist, the source of all peace, all joy and all consolation, as the Responsorial Psalm sings: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (34:8). He is clothed with such sweetness that with one hand He lays upon us the yoke of the law, which is contrary to our evil inclinations, and with the other He sustains and lifts us up!
Our Lord wants to make us perfect, like the heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:48). To this end, He asks us to be submissive to Him, like a wife to her husband, as St. Paul teaches in today’s second reading (cf. Eph 5:22). More than followers, we must be His slaves, abandoned into His hands and ready to do His will in everything.
Let us remember that integrity in union with God is the only path to happiness. Sin is not an alternative path, but a mistake: whenever someone chooses paths contrary to virtue, sooner or later he finds himself in a “dead end” which leads to despair and affliction, or worse still, which offers a shortcut to eternal unhappiness.
Let us take advantage of this Liturgy to make an indissoluble covenant with Jesus, saying to Him: “Lord, my nature is weak, and numerous are the attachments that bind me to this earth. I know that I will not reach Heaven by my own abilities, and so I ask Thee, through the intercession of Thy Blessed Mother: since Thou dost call me to be entirely Thine, give me the strength to get there!” ◊
1 Cf. CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. The Best “Wine” in History. In: Heralds of the Gospel. Nobleton. Vol. 4, No. 27 (Jan., 2010); p.10-17; New Insights on the Gospels. Città del Vaticano-Nobleton: LEV; Heralds of the Gospel, 2012, v.VI, p.20-33.