20th. Sunday of the Year (B)
(Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58)
Today we learn to what lengths Jesus went to in order to make people think about, pay attention to, what He was saying. Jesus avoided popularity with the majority of people, but He did, most passionately, want those initially drawn to Him by His Father to hear with a measure of understanding the simple words with which He addressed them, that thus they might begin to gradually appreciate His teaching, and hopefully even to modify their lives and purify their aspirations in accordance with it.
In the gospel reading He declared:
I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.
As you heard, and as you may well understand, the Jews were outraged at such words, and murmured among themselves:
How can this man give us His flesh to eat?
What did Jesus do? He went on to say something yet more difficult for those ‘pious’ Jews even to hear let alone accept:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.
For a Jew, that last statement was absolutely outrageous because it seemed quite contrary to the command God had given Noah and his sons in the beginning:
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” (Genesis 9:1-4)
This same command, moreover, was most emphatically confirmed in the Law itself given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Leviticus 7:26-27):
You shall not eat any blood in any of your dwellings, whether of bird or beast. Whoever eats any blood, that person shall be cut off from his people.
What then is the significance of the blood? Let us learn more from the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. (Leviticus 17:11)
Be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life; you may not eat the life with the meat. The blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the LORD your God, and you shall eat the meat. (Deuteronomy 12:23, 27)
Why, therefore, did Jesus speak so provocatively to the Jews by first of all saying, “eat My Flesh” and then following it up by the even more provocative and objectionable words, “drink My Blood”? What was He trying to express that was so important, so sublimely important, that He felt the need to go to such lengths in order to make His hearers give close attention to, and think deeply about, what He was saying?
The reason is that here we are given a startlingly clear picture of the uniquely Christian awareness of the extent and the nature of God’s love for us, as also of the divine humility of Jesus. For, although Jesus’ blood -- the Blood of the God’s only begotten Son -- was most sinfully poured out by us, yet, St. Paul (Ephesians 2:4) assures us:
God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us
turned that supreme evil into a supreme blessing. Since Jesus poured out His blood so willingly for us God allowed us to use that blood for our spiritual benefit! In the light of the Christian revelation and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we learn that, being allowed to drink the Blood of Jesus we are thereby enabled to imbibe life -- eternal life -- and ultimately a share in the sonship of Christ Himself! As Paul (Ephesians 2:5) continues:
Even when we were dead in trespasses, (God) made us alive together with Christ.
How great is the Father’s love for us, People of God! The blood of all creatures pertains to Him alone; how dear beyond all measure, therefore, is the blood of His only-begotten Son-made-flesh? How unimaginable is the humiliation which Jesus so willingly and so lovingly undertook out of obedience to His Father and compassion for us: pouring out His own, His Most Precious, Blood willingly for our sins, and so for our use, our benefit, our profit, and our salvation.
How sublimely, then, is that text of Leviticus thereby fulfilled:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it (the Blood of the Immaculate Lamb of God) to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul (because it is the Precious Blood of the Risen and eternally living Son-of-God-made-Man).
People of God, we live in evil times, we live in a society which condones, and indeed admires, all sorts of excesses and contradictions (death penalty/abortion!!): a society which, too often, teaches its children to get, not give; to experience pleasure rather than practice discipline; to use others, not to serve them; to seek advantage and success rather than to strive for honour and integrity.
We however -- as disciples of Jesus and in response to God’s wondrous love -- must, as our first reading said:
Forsake foolishness that you may live and advance in the way of understanding.
And it is here that we can appreciate another, essential, aspect of Jesus’ insistence that we eat His flesh and drink His blood.
In our world money is supreme, and most of it -- and consequently most of the world’s advantages and benefits -- go to those who are top-dogs or already rich, the important ones, the famous and the popular; while the underdogs, the poor, the insignificant and the unpopular, have to be satisfied with what remains over. Jesus saw it all and warned His disciples:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. (Matthew 20:25)
Jesus knew that such a situation was the expression of sin’s presence in the world, and having become man in order to conquer sin and bring redemption for mankind, He therefore went on to say:
It shall not be so among you.
To that end, therefore, Jesus insisted repeatedly that no one could be saved by his or her own native genius or power of whatever sort. Personal salvation cannot be won by personal endeavour using natural talents, it can only be received as a gift subsequent on a personal encounter with, and spiritual response to, Jesus:
If you do not eat My flesh and drink My blood you do not have life in you.
In Jesus’ Church, and in preparation for the coming Kingdom of God, everyone thus starts once again on an equal footing (1 Corinthians 10:16-17):
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.
That one bread and the one cup are the source of all grace and blessing for us, and on receiving them we encounter Christ, the Risen Lord, Himself; and, in that encounter we are in the presence of, and alone with, Him: there is no one else listening to our conversation; we are free to say, ask for, what we want, totally free to be ourselves with Him Who knows, and what is much more, appreciates, not only what we are but also what we want to be. St. Paul puts it this way:
Now you have known God, or rather are known by God. (Galatians 4:9)
My dear People, the natural gifts each of us may have were not given to directly further our personal salvation, rather they have been bestowed upon us for our earthly benefit and the benefit of the society in which we live, and indeed, in exceptional cases, of the whole world. Eternal salvation, however, comes to us as the result of our correspondence with the – perhaps unnoticed, unthought of -- guidance and calling of His own Most Holy Spirit over the years; with our personal faith-awareness of, and loving response to, Christ in our daily lives as witnessing Catholics and Christians; above all, however, as a result of our personal encounter with Our Saviour Himself in our reception of the Holy Eucharist.
As we heard in the second reading we should:
Be careful how (we) walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of (our) time, because the days are evil. So then (let us) not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is, always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father.
Indeed, giving thanks, above all, for the wondrous beauty and goodness, the infinite mercy and compassion, of God our Father, made manifest to us in and through the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus His Son and our Redeemer.
We must realize, therefore, that although we are obliged to struggle at times in order to resist and overcome earthly inclinations which would lead us, through sin and self-indulgence, to death beyond the grave; nevertheless, as disciples of Jesus, our life, as a whole, should rather be experienced as, and characterized by, an ever deepening and developing awareness of the love and beauty both surrounding and awaiting us, as we learn, in Jesus, so to love our heavenly Father, that we ultimately receive -- as adopted children of God --a share in the heavenly inheritance of His beloved Son, thanks to the saving grace won for us by Jesus and bestowed upon us throughout our earthly pilgrimage by His Most Holy Spirit.
To the One God, therefore, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be all glory, praise, and honour, for ever and ever. Amen.