By Archbishop Francesco Follo
Jos 24, 1-2.15-17.18; Ps 34; Eph 5.21 to 32; Jn 6.60 to 69
1) An unsettling question that cuts across the centuries.
The teaching of Jesus on the bread of life, which we have heard in the last four Sundays, presents to us the true image of God’s great love for us. Christ spoke of a love that is not just word. It is Love that goes beyond all expectation, beyond our poor imagination. The Savior is Love that donates himself and becomes part of our own life. Moreover He makes us part of His own life “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6: 54).
This proposal of a food of love, unfortunately, provokes a negative reaction. Jesus was not understood then and too many do not understand him even today. Today, as then, many say “This saying is tough! Who can accept it? … And “many of his disciples turned back and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6, 60.66).
The word of Jesus is not “tough”. It is our heart that is hard because too often it just shuts itself away and does want to listen. The word of the Lord is sweet, sweeter than honey (see Ps 119: 103) and it is not too difficult to accept and to put into practice. For sure it’s a demanding teaching with which Christ offers us a life that is happy, not easy. To the question asked by the Savior with tenderness, pain and determination, “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:67) let us respond promptly “To whom shall we go? You have the words of true life”, a happy life.
This question of Christ goes across the centuries and comes down to us. It challenges us personally and calls for a decision. If we are meditating this passage of the Gospel it is because we identify with the Apostle Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life “(Jan 6: 68). We hear all kinds of words around us, but only Christ speaks words that stand the test of time, explain life and remain for eternity.
Like St. Peter, therefore, let us adhere to the words of Christ without reservation or hesitation of any kind.
Like St. Peter let us respond to the Messiah with words that express our faith as disciples “You have the words of truth” because we recognize that He is the only savior, the only one that makes the salvation of God present among us.
Like St. Peter we are certainly aware of our human frailty and we too, like him, can give the same answer, confident in the power of the Holy Spirit that is expressed and manifested in communion with Jesus. Faith is a gift of God to man and it is, at the same time, free and total entrustment to God. Faith is docile listening to the word of the Lord, who is “lamp” for our steps and “light” for our path (see. Ps 119: 105).
To the unsettling provocation that resounds in our hearts, each of us must give Jesus a personal response. The Messiah, in fact, is not content with a superficial and formal belonging. A first and enthusiastic adherence is not enough. We should, on the contrary, take part for life “in His thinking and in His willing”. Following him fills our hearts with joy and gives full meaning to our existence, but it involves hardships, sacrifices and difficulties because very often we must swim against the current.
2) Words of life that make our life alive.
The answer of St. Peter to Jesus’ question “Will you too go away?” does not end with the expression “You have the words of eternal life”. The Head of the Apostles, speaking on behalf of others, adds “and we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). An expression that St. Augustine explains in the following way “Do you see how Peter, for grace of God and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understands? Why did he understand? Because he believed. You have the words of eternal life. You give us eternal life by offering your body and your blood. And we have come to believe and to know. He does not say we have known and believed”, but “we have believed and known”. We have believed to be able to know. In fact, if we wanted to know before to believe, we would not have been able either to know or to believe. What did we believe and what have we known? That you are the Christ, the Son of God; that you are the eternal life, and in the flesh and in the blood you give us what you are “(Commentary on the Gospel of John, 27, 9).
The attitude that better summarizes the words of Peter is to stand in front of Most Holy Sacrament in humble and silent adoration, cultivating in our hearts no doubt, but the desire of those who want full communion with Him.
The Amen that the Church makes us say when we take Communion acquires a deeper meaning because it repeats the same profession of faith of Peter “Not without reason you say Amen recognizing that you take the body of Christ; when you show up to receive it, the Bishop says” The body of Christ!” And you say, Amen! Namely: it is true! Let your mind guard what your word recognizes. “(St. Ambrose).
May the Virgin Mary, who said her fiat, her yes, give us the humility of heart and the desire to recognize the greatness of the divine gift given to us in the Bread of Life.
Even St. Peter, with the answer on which we are meditating, renews his fiat, his yes to Christ. How can we imitate him? Entrusting ourselves completely to Christ, renewing our yes with prayer, with the Eucharistic adoration, with the Communion after which we say: “Amen!”” Yes!”
Following the example of the Virgin Mary and of St. Peter, let us trust in Christ.
Today’s liturgy offers us another example. That of the children of Israel in Shechem before entering the Promised Land (Josh 24, 1-2.15-17.18 – first reading). Faced with the choice proposed by Joshua “Choose you this day whom you will serve”, in front of an alternative, the Israelites trusted the good testimony of their fathers who had been freed from slavery in Egypt. They trusted and chose to serve the Lord, although if they had not yet seen all clear of him and of his word.
Another particular example of how to put Christ at the center of life is given by the consecrated Virgins in the world. These women understand that the Lord is the one who has words that make life alive. With their consecrated life they testify that Christ is the heart of the world.
Every day each one of them says to Christ “You have the words of everlasting life” (Jn 6:68), not so much with words but with her life offered fully to the Bridegroom. Their virginal life, in fact, refers to Christ, is nourished by His Word of life and eats His bread that does not end.
These women show that Christ has “words of eternal life” not only because it heals the soul and the body, but because Christ is the sense of their human nature and their guiding star. They must profess the proud consciousness that Christ is the “new man”. His life plan is the way and the truth of the human experience, because it is the fullness of life. They can say it showing that this makes them grow, hope and love. If Christ is the healer, it is because He is the Father’s gift to every man and woman. If Christ is the truth, it is because He claims to be a truth appealing to the heart of each person. If Christ is the way, it is because He has given us the Spirit of love that leads us into the heart of God. If Christ is all that, then He is life. Yes, the good and full life. In short, they are witnesses that only Christ, “Word of Life”, gives life and peace and joy. They have given themselves to Love and receive love to spread in everyday life.
We can do the same in front of the Sunday Eucharist, a gesture that sometimes seems hard and far. The temptation to suspend this practice waiting to understand it better, indicates an illusory perspective: it is only practicing the sacrament that we can deepen its meaning. Only listening to Christ and trusting in Him who is waiting on us in the Communion, we will understand that the Lord alone has the words that make life alive.
Saint Augustin of Hyppo
Tractate 27 on Jn 6,60-72.
1. We have just heard out of the Gospel the words of the Lord which follow the former discourse. From these a discourse is due to your ears and minds, and it is not unseasonable to-day; for it is concerning the body of the Lord which He said that He gave to be eaten for eternal life. And He explained the mode of this bestowal and gift of His, in what manner He gave His flesh to eat, saying, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” The proof that a man has eaten and drank is this, if he abides and is abode in, if he dwells and is dwelt in, if he adheres so as not to be deserted. This, then, He has taught us, and admonished us in mystical words that we may be in His body, in His members under Himself as head, eating His flesh, not abandoning our unity with Him. But most of those who were present, by not understanding Him, were offended; for in hearing these things, they thought only of flesh, that which themselves were. But the apostle says, and says what is true, “To be carnally-minded is death.”1 The Lord gives us His flesh to eat, and yet to understand it according to the flesh is death; while yet He says of His flesh, that therein is eternal life. Therefore we ought not to understand the flesh carnally. As in these words that follow:
2. “Many therefore,” not of His enemies, but “of His disciples, when they had heard this, said. This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” If His disciples accounted this saying hard, what must His enemies have thought? And yet so it behoved that to be said which should not be understood by all. The secret of God ought to make men eagerly attentive, not hostile. But these men quickly departed from Him, while the Lord said such things: they did not believe Him to be saying something great, and covering some grace by these words; they understood just according to their wishes, and in the manner of men, that Jesus was able, or was determined upon this, namely, to distribute the flesh with which the Word was clothed, piecemeal, as it were, to those that believe on Him. “This,” say they, “is a hard saying; who can hear it?”
3. “But Jesus, knowing in Himself that His disciples murmured at it,”-for they so said these things with themselves that they might not be heard by Him: but He who knew them in themselves, hearing within Himself,-answered and said, “This offends you;” because I said, I give you my flesh to eat, and my blood to drink, this forsooth offends you. “Then what if ye shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before?” What is this? Did He hereby solve the question that perplexed them? Did He hereby uncover the source of their offense? He did clearly, if only they understood. For they supposed that He was going to deal out His body to them; but He said that He was to ascend into heaven, of course, whole: “When ye shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before;” certainly then. at least, you will see that not in the manner you suppose does He dispense His body; certainly then, at least, you will understand that His grace is not consumed by tooth-biting).
4. And He said, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” Before we expound this, as the Lord grants us, that other must not be negligently passed over, where He says, “Then what if ye shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before?” For Christ is the Son of man, of the Virgin Mary. Therefore Son of man He began to be here on earth, where He took flesh from the earth. For which cause it was said prophetically, “Truth is sprung from the earth.”2 Then what does He mean when He says, “When ye shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before”? For there had been no question if He had spoken thus: “If ye shall see the Son of God ascending where He was before,” But since He said, “The Son of man ascending where He was before,” surely the Son of man was not in heaven before the time when He began to have a being on earth? Here, indeed, He said, “where He was before,” just as if He were not there at this time when He spoke these words. But in another place He says, “No man has ascended into heaven but He that came down from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.”3 He said not “was,” but, saith He, “the Son of man who is in heaven.” He was speaking on earth, and He declared Himself to be in heaven. And yet He did not speak thus: “No man hath ascended into heaven but He that came down from heaven,” the Son of God, “who is in heaven.” Whither tends it, but to make us understand that which even in the former discourse I commended to your minds, my beloved, that Christ, both God and man, is one person, not two persons, lest our faith be not a trinity, but a quaternity? Christ, therefore, is one; the Word, soul and flesh, one Christ; the Son of God and Son of man, one Christ; Son of God always, Son of man in time, yet one Christ in regard to unity of person. In heaven He was when He spoke on earth. He was Son of man in heaven in that manner in which He was Son of God on earth; Son of God on earth in the flesh which He took, Son of man in heaven in the unity of person.
5. What is it, then, that He adds? “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” Let us say to Him (for He permits us, not contradicting Him, but desiring to know), O Lord, good Master, in what way does the flesh profit nothing, whilst Thou hast said, “Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him?” Or does life profit nothing? And why are we what we are, but that we may have eternal life, which Thou dost promise by Thy flesh? Then what means “the flesh profiteth nothing”? It profiteth nothing, but only in the manner in which they understood it. They indeed understood the flesh, just as when cut to pieces in a carcass, or sold in the shambles; not as when it is quickened by the Spirit. Wherefore it is said that “the flesh profiteth nothing,” in the same manner as it is said that “knowledge puffeth up.” Then, ought we at once to hate knowledge? Far from it! And what means “Knowledge puffeth up”? Knowledge alone, without charity. Therefore he added, “but charity edifieth.”4 Therefore add thou to knowledge charity, and knowledge will be profitable, not by itself, but through charity. So also here, “the flesh profiteth nothing,” only when alone. Let the Spirit be added to the flesh, as charity is added to knowledge, and it profiteth very much. For if the flesh profiled nothing, the Word would not be made flesh to dwell among us. If through the flesh Christ has greatly profiled us, does the flesh profit nothing? But it is by the flesh that the Spirit has done somewhat for our salvation. Flesh was a vessel; consider what it held, not what it was. The apostles were sent forth; did their flesh profit us nothing? If the apostles’ flesh profited us, could it be that the Lord’s flesh should have profiled us nothing? For how should the sound of the Word come to us except by the voice of the flesh? Whence should writing come to us? All these are operations of the flesh, but only when the spirit moves it, as if it were its organ. Therefore “it is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing,” as they understood the flesh, but not so do I give my flesh to be eaten.
6. Hence “the words,” saith He, “which I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” For we have said, brethren, that this is what the Lord had taught us by the eating of His flesh and drinking of His blood, that we should abide in Him and He in us. But we abide in Him when we are His members, and He abides in us when we are His temple. But that we may be His members, unity joins us together. And what but love can effect that unity should join us together? And the love of God, whence is it? Ask the apostle: “The love of God,” saith he, “is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us.”5 Therefore “it is the Spirit that quickeneth,” for it is the Spirit that makes living members. Nor does the Spirit make any members to be living except such as it finds in the body, which also the Spirit itself quickens. For the Spirit which is in thee, O man, by which it consists that thou art a man, does it quicken a member which it finds separated from thy flesh? I call thy soul thy spirit. Thy soul quickeneth only the members which are in thy flesh; if thou takest one away, it is no longer quickened by thy soul, because it is not joined to the unity of thy body. These things are said to make us love unity and fear separation. For there is nothing that a Christian ought to dread so much as to be separated from Christ’s body. For if he is separated from Christ’s body, he is not a member of Christ; if he is not a member of Christ, he is not quickened by the Spirit of Christ. “But if any man,” saith the apostle, “have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.”6 “It is the Spirit,” then, “that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” What means “are spirit and life”? They are to be understood spiritually. Hast thou understood spiritually? “They are spirit and life.” Hast thou understood carnally? So also “are they spirit and life,” but are not so to thee.