Beginning with last Sunday’s Gospel and continuing for the next four Sundays, the focus at Mass is on the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St John: Jesus fed 5,000 with five small barley loaves and two dried fishes, last Sunday.
This coming Sunday Jesus, confronted by the crowd looking for more free food, explains that the manna God sent to feed their ancestors is not the real bread from heaven. The following Sunday, Jesus clarifies that he is the true bread come down from heaven.
The Sunday after, Jesus concludes his discourse by, quite graphically, telling the crowd that, to gain eternal life, they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. The next Sunday we see the upshot of this teaching: many of Jesus’ disciples find this “a hard saying” and leave him.
Years of repetition and commentary about partaking of Christ’s flesh and blood at Mass under the forms of bread and wine, along with the more ethereal examples of Catholic art, have softened and sentimentalized this doctrine. It was a thunderclap to Christ’s first audience.
Due to the prevalence of caravans and other forms of commerce, trade and travel, Galileans spoke Koine (common) Greek almost as often as they spoke Aramaic. St. John, therefore, makes sure his readers understand the literalness of Jesus’ statements as well as those who first heard him.
Instead of the Koine Greek, phagos, a genteel word describing polite dining, Christ shockingly uses the word trogos: “munch, chew, gnaw,” ordinarily describing animals ripping apart their prey.
The disciples didn’t simply misunderstand the concept. The term, “hard saying” in Greek, skleros, means something disagreeable, offensive, even disgusting.
Try, if you would, when listening to these Gospel readings at Mass, to hear Jesus as his opponents first heard him, asking each other in shocked astonishment, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Many of them found this teaching vile. Then try hearing this instruction as Jesus’ first followers heard it: the demand to eat his flesh and drink his blood would sound nauseating and repulsive.
They heard Our Lord say in explicitly literal terms that his flesh must be chewed, munched and gnawed. Neither his followers nor his opponents understand Jesus to speak in some airy, nebulous, vague metaphysical way.
Think about it.
If you’d followed Jesus for a year or two, having heard His stories describing God’s love and seen him cure the blind and lame, drive a legion of demons into a herd of swine, and, especially, witnessed him create food enough to feed thousands, would you think him demented when he forecasts a day when his followers would eat his body and drink his blood?
Without a trusting heart, it’s unlikely. The spirituality Jesus would explain later, but he knew the roots of their faith would not go deeply enough to comprehend. So he gave them no out, no symbolic imagery. He simply let them go.
Then, in one of the most touching moments of his life, Jesus turns to the Twelve. One can feel the sad poignancy and apprehension as he asks, “Do you also want to leave?”
He’s giving them a chance to avoid heartache and persecution, flogging, beheading and crucifixion. He gives them the chance to go back to their families, their nets and all the joys of ordinary life.
As he did at Caesarea Phillipi, Simon Peter steps forward boldly, putting into words what the others, perhaps, only thought: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
This idea has to be first and foremost in our thoughts when walking up the aisle to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist, “You are the Holy One of God.” Without it our communion is earth-bound and meaningless.
In Ephesians 5:2, St. Paul tells us, “Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God.” We, too, have to love Jesus confessing, as did St Thomas, that Jesus is, “My Lord and my God.”