Have you ever sent a message to someone hastily, only to realize later that it wasn’t what you really meant to say? I think it’s happened to just about everyone. Especially in today’s day and age, with the oh-so-fickle invention we call AutoCorrect. If you don’t know, AutoCorrect is a software feature that is supposed to fix your spelling errors automatically as you type. But sometimes AutoCorrect will fix a word that doesn’t need to be fixed, or change it to a word you didn’t intend. Now, AutoCorrect errors can range from the gut-bustingly hilarious to the outright scandalous, depending on the word it chooses. I think it was about a year ago that I had one of those precious AutoCorrect moments, as I was texting a certain church employee. I meant to type the phrase, “something that will suit their needs.” And apparently, I misspelled suit. No problem, AutoCorrect to the rescue! Well, AutoCorrect didn’t guess right that time, and before I proofread the message, I pressed “send.” Then I read my message. My next thought was, “why, for the love of Pete, did they not invent an “unsend” button?” We all say things we wish we could take back.
This month, we have been making our way thru the Gospel of John, chapter 6. We have heard Jesus say some pretty cryptic things, perhaps even radical things. A couple of weeks ago, we heard verse 35, in which Jesus first says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Now, if you had read up to that point and stopped, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was simply talking about our need to believe in him, follow him, even feast on his wisdom as if it were our daily bread.
Today, to us Catholics, we hear in these words an obvious reference to the Most Holy Eucharist. This passage, called the Bread of Life Discourse, is the place in John’s Gospel where he places his account of the institution of the Eucharist. If you skip ahead in John to the Last Supper, you won’t see the part where Jesus raises the bread, says the blessing and says, “take this, all of you, and eat it; this is my body.” No, that is only found in the other three gospels. John presents the Eucharist to us in a different way. And as beautiful as the account is in the other three gospels, the teaching of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is so abundantly clear in John’s gospel that it would seem impossible to deny. But imagine what it would have been like to hear these words for the first time, with no prior knowledge of the Eucharist. Place yourself in that scene, and hear Jesus say to you, “I am the bread of life.”
This man, Jesus, has just referred to himself as a piece of bread. OK, that’s kinda strange. Must be a metaphor for something. The crowd begins to murmur. But then what does Jesus do? He doubles down. Verse 48: “I am the bread of life.” We heard that verse last week. But today he triples down! Verse 51: “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.”
At this point, the crowd begins to quarrel. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask. And you would probably be asking the same thing! You might even be a little grossed out. “Um, excuse me?? You’re saying your flesh is bread, and you want us to eat your flesh?” Now at this point, Jesus has a decision to make. He could take back what he just said. He could press the “unsend” button, and clarify what he meant by “I am the bread of life,” if it was indeed a figure of speech. If he did, it wouldn’t be the first time. In the gospels, Jesus is often misunderstood, and sometimes he has to explain what he meant.
For example, if we look back at chapter 3, we see Jesus speaking with Nicodemus about being “born again,” or “born from above.” In that instance, the phrase actually is a play on words. In the Aramaic language, the same phrase means both “born again” and “born from above.” So Jesus is using a sort of pun, an equivocation, and Nicodemus misunderstands. He asks, “How can a person… be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” So Jesus explains, no, Nicodemus, I’m saying you have to be born of water and the Spirit. Ohhhh! Now I get it.
But this time, Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” and he doesn’t press “unsend.” Jesus doesn’t back down from what he said. He doesn’t say, “No wait, you guys, I didn’t mean that! What I really meant was…” No. He meant exactly what he said. Let’s do a quick run-down of John 6 and see whether Jesus really meant what he said:
Verse 35 “I am the bread of life”
Verse 41 “The Jews murmured about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’”
Verse 48 “I am the bread of life”
Verse 51 “I am the living bread that came down from heaven”
Verse 51 “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world”
Verse 54 “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day”
Verse 56 “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him”
Verse 57 “The one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”
Verse 61 “Does this shock you?”
Verse 64 “There are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus is not speaking in parables this time. He is not speaking in metaphors. He is not “trolling” the crowd. He is saying exactly what he means, becoming more specific as he goes.
And we can see how Jesus gets more specific and insistent by the verbs he uses. In this passage, Jesus uses two different verbs to mean “eat.” We don’t hear the distinction in the English translation, but in Greek there are two different verbs with slightly different meanings. Jesus starts by using the word “phagein.” That means “to eat” in the generic sense. He and the crowd use the verb “phagein” thru verse 53. But then in verse 54 Jesus changes the verb to “trogein,” which means to gnaw, like a dog gnaws on a bone. He intensifies his language rather than retreating into metaphorical terms. He ACTUALLY DOES want us to eat/gnaw his flesh and drink his blood!
“How can this be?” they ask. It seems impossible, even revolting. And yet Jesus even calls them out for their shock and disbelief. But why should they be shocked? Jesus has literally just fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. And now they are shocked? Now they disbelieve?
It’s not so different in our own time. Every couple of years, the Pew Research Foundation comes out with statistics on religious practice, such as, how many Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The last one I could find was from 2010, which showed that only 63% of Catholics actually believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist. That’s a full 37% who do not believe. It’s no wonder why we lose half of the Catholics we baptize. It is a crisis of belief. For whatever reason, the grace of faith that was infused at baptism did not flourish. In many cases, the faith was simply neglected, not passed down. This is a critical failure on the part of the Catholic Church, whose mission it is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
Many of you have shared stories with me about lapsed Catholics within your own families. It pains us to see our neighbors and family walk away from the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life. We wish we had just the right words to say that would bring them back. Yet, as much as it grieves us, how much more does it cause grief to our Lord? He knows exactly how it feels. In next week’s gospel, we will hear some of Jesus’ own disciples fall away. It is in a verse that is easy to remember. John 6:66. It states: “As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
Jesus lets them walk away. He doesn’t chase after them, because he knows that they have freely chosen to reject the truth. We then hear the sorrow in our Lord’s voice as he says to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” St. Peter speaks for them all, as he says, “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.”
Perhaps some of our lapsed brethren have been able to find other Christian communities that did allow their faith to flourish, and thanks be to God for that. I, for one, believe that the Holy Spirit works thru these communities also, and that we are united in baptism and in our reverence for Sacred Scripture, among other things. I also believe that the truth is attractive, and once we get a taste of it, we desire more. For this reason, I am hopeful that our lapsed brethren, who are fervently and honestly pursuing Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, will find their way home to the Catholic Church, the pillar and bulwark of the truth, and home to the fullness of sacramental grace. We pray for that day, all the while respecting their freedom. After all, God has given us free will, and he does not violate it. Thus, we, too, cannot force anyone to believe.
Admittedly, it is a hard teaching. It is hard to believe that this wafer of bread and this chalice of wine will become, in a few minutes, the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It is even hard for someone strong in his faith. Why would Jesus hide himself from our senses like this? Surely if we could see him, then we would believe. A former co-worker of mine once asked her 2nd grade student, “Why does Jesus come to us under the appearance of bread?” The young child responded, “So that we wouldn’t be scared of him.”
What we believe about the Most Holy Eucharist comes down to an act of faith. We cannot fully understand it; we cannot grasp its reality with our senses. Our faith must supply what is lacking in order for us to believe.
What we do know for sure, is that when Jesus speaks, his word is effective. When he says, “Quiet, be still!” the storm clouds obey. When he says, “Lazarus, come out!” the dead man is awakened. When he says, “Do this in memory of me,” the priesthood is established. And when Jesus’ priest says, in the words of Christ himself, “THIS IS MY BODY,” we know by faith that it truly is.
It is a mystery as old as the Church herself, and one that has been reflected upon by her members in every age. I conclude with the words of a medieval hymn, attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, called Adoro Te Devote. You know the melody…
Adoro te devote, latens deitas,
Quæ sub his figuris vere latitas;
Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit,
Quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Translated, it says:
I devoutly adore you, o hidden Deity,
Truly hidden beneath these appearances.
My whole heart submits to You,
And in contemplating You, it surrenders itself completely.
Sight, touch, taste are all deceived in their judgment of you,
But hearing suffices firmly to believe.
I believe all that the Son of God has spoken;
On the cross only the divinity was hidden,
But here the humanity is also hidden.
Yet believing and confessing both,
I ask for what the penitent thief asked.
But I confess that You are my God.
Make me believe much more in You,
Hope in you, and love You.
O memorial of our Lord’s death,
Living Bread that gives life to man,
Grant my soul to live on You,
And always to savor your sweetness.
wash my filthiness and clean me with Your Blood,
One drop of which can free
the entire world of all its sins.
Jesus, whom now I see hidden,
I ask You to fulfill what I so desire:
That, seeing Your Face unveiled,
I may be happy in seeing Your glory. Amen.