Nineteenth Sunday (Year B)
(1st. Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30 - 5:2; John 6:41-51)
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from Him comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
Those words indicate to us why, today, our Christian faith is unacceptable to many who are liberal-minded, because they speak of our having to listen humbly to One above and beyond us, One Who is totally outside of our control or supervision; and, what is not only unacceptable but also most objectionable, they even presume to speak of our responsibility before that mysterious One, to hear Him and respond appropriately:
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draw him; everyone who listens to my Father and learns from Him come to Me.
Let us, however, who, as disciples of Jesus are fully aware of and, hopefully, responsive to the sublime mystery of divine holiness and love, reverently and gratefully consider the great blessing all of us, gathered here in love for worship, have received.
Today, you and I have come to Jesus: and Jesus tells us that -- in one way or another -- we have come because the Father Himself has drawn us; which means that, in the depths of our being, each of us has heard the Father, heard Him speaking to us personally; and, having learnt from what He said to us in the secret depths of our being, have come, at His behest, to Jesus.
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to Me.
Of course, someone could, especially in the old days, come to Church because of social pressures of one sort or another. Even then, it could be said that the Father was behind it all, and that such was the one way He, in His wisdom, saw to be the best for us at that time and in our situation. In such a case, however, we would not have fully learned from the Father, nor would we truly have come to Jesus, until we had progressed further and attained to personal faith, as Jesus says:
Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
That is the first lesson for us today: coming to Church is only really meaningful and truly fulfilling in so far as we come with personal faith in and commitment to Jesus as our Lord and our Saviour; and if we have come to Church and to Jesus in that way then, Jesus Himself assures us, we have eternal life:
Whoever believes has eternal life.
However, that is not everything; because eternal life, just like natural life, needs nourishment. No normal mother and father, having given life to their child, would leave it without nourishment, because the life they have given has to develop, must grow. Similarly, the eternal life given to us through faith in Jesus needs to grow, must develop, for such is the very nature of life: it has an innate drive towards fulfilment and perfection, and the only nourishment for such further development of eternal life within us is indicated by Jesus’ words:
I am the bread of life.
And yet, what does He really mean with those words? Does He not bestow, can we not receive, blessings from Him whenever we pray to Him, study the Scriptures, or, perhaps, share in silent meditation, like many modern Christian groups who do not have the Eucharist?
Of course, when we do such things there can be no doubt that He does bestow on us many and rich blessings. Nevertheless, He meant something more than that: for He spoke of eating the bread that He would give; eating in the way the Israelites ate manna in the desert when they had to go out to collect the manna before putting it on their plates, so to speak:
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.
Praying, reading and studying, God’s word, are all part, aspects, of our life of faith; and Jesus said that even those who come to Him with faith need also to eat His bread:
I am the bread of life. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.
So, we live by faith, and to help our faith grow and produce its fruit we need to eat this living bread which Jesus gives.
We might well notice here a subtle change in the new translation of Mass: at Communion, instead of the words, ‘May the Body/Blood of Christ bring me to everlasting life’, we have, ‘May the Body/Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life’. There can be no doubt; the Eucharist is not to be imagined as some magical bolt from the blue in its effect on our life, but as a sublime and mutual commitment of life and love for the protection, nourishment, and development of eternal life and love in us.
What, then, does “eating” mean here? It means -- first of all and quite literally -- eating and chewing, because the word He uses is the normal word for those actions; and, of course, the Israelites in the desert did actually eat the manna:
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert; whoever eats this bread, will live forever.
Now, we all know that there is a difference between eating and just receiving into our mouth; indeed, even food taken into our stomach has not really been eaten if we do not digest it and find nourishment from it. So it is with this Bread of Jesus: we need to prepare before eating, so as to eat It with dispositions that will enable us to receive fullest nourishment from It, for this is that food of which the prophet Isaiah spoke:
The Lord of Hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain, a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine. And on this mountain He will swallow up death for all time … and it will be said in that day, ‘Behold, this is the Lord for Whom we have waited that He might save us, let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.’ (Isaiah 25:6-9)
This is food not just to be received, but to be lovingly savoured, to be religiously chewed, and spiritually digested. What then are those dispositions?
This Jesus makes clear when He tells us that His gift of Bread will actually be His Flesh, given up, offered, to His Father, for a special purpose:
The bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world.
The Eucharistic Flesh of Jesus we approach in Holy Communion is given, He tells us, “for the life of the world”; given, that is, in sacrifice for the life of the world, to save mankind from sin. Surely, therefore, we can now begin to understand more clearly what should be our attitude of mind and heart as we approach the Lord in Holy Communion.
First of all, we must approach in all humility, knowing that we are not bestowing any favour upon Him when we draw near to receive Him; for we need to be freed, cleansed, by Him, from our past sins and enduring weakness, protected from surrounding dangers and possibly imminent trials; moreover, loving Him as yet imperfectly, we also want and indeed need – so desperately -- to love Him more. Wherefore, our second attitude of mind and heart should be one of longing, longing to give ourselves, with Him, in sacrifice, and one of trust, that, by His Spirit we might be able to walk faithfully and perseveringly in His ways: seeking to do what pleases Him in all things, while carefully avoiding sin and firmly rejecting self. Only with such dispositions can we approach and receive fruitfully Him Who said:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world.
Those lessons, learnt from today’s Gospel, are confirmed by St. Paul who told us in the second reading that we are called to:
Walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling aroma.
That we might walk humbly along Christ’s way, offering ourselves for sacrifice with Him, is precisely why the Eucharistic Food is given us: for, as you heard in the first reading, this Bread is given to enable us to make a journey which far exceeds our own native powers:
The angel of the LORD came back the second time, and touched him and said, "Arise, and eat, because the journey is too great for you." So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.
Horeb was the mountain of God’s self-revelation to Moses and the People of Israel in the desert. Now, our journey, too, is one corresponding to forty days and forty nights of struggle and endeavour leading to the sublime height where God is to be seen face to face in all His heavenly glory; however, it corresponds not so much to the journey of Elijah, as to the forty days and forty nights Jesus Our Lord spent in the desert confounding the words and rejecting the person of Satan. After that epic conflict Satan retired temporarily while Jesus proclaimed the Good News of the Gospel and laid the foundations of His Church. Then, apparently contesting the definitive nature of Jesus’ previous victory, Satan once more entered the lists for an ultimate struggle with Jesus where he pitted his dire threat of earthly suffering and death against Jesus’ supreme promise of eternal life. Jesus took up Satan’s gauntlet, and, by rising from the suffering and death of the Cross in the power of the Holy Spirit, He totally destroyed the Devil’s earthly power, before finally ascending in bodily glory to heaven in manifest fulfilment and vindication of His promise and firmly establishing the foundations of God’s Kingdom here on earth through the subsequent Gift of His Spirit to all His faithful disciples.
So, our journey in the strength of Jesus’ Eucharistic food is meant to lead us, in the power of His most Holy Spirit, to triumph over sin and suffering in our lives, before passing -- with Jesus -- through death to our final triumph over Satan. Thereupon, we will be guided to the heavenly home where God the Father has prepared a festal gathering for His Son, and where Jesus -- having prepared many rooms -- gives welcome and rest to all who will have persevered in His Name. Ultimately, He will lead all His faithful and triumphant disciples into the glorious Presence of Him Who will embrace us as His true children in Jesus and show Himself to be the One true Father of us all and Supreme Source of all that is good by inviting us to take our place at His heavenly banquet celebrating the ultimate and most sublime Eucharist: by the Spirit, sharing in and partaking of Jesus’ eternal happiness and glorious beatitude before the Father.