Jesus Teaches, 1886-1894, Jacques Tissot Watercolor Series of the Life of Christ, The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, USA.

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go?     John 6:67-68.

Today’s gospel continues the theme established several weeks ago, where Jesus lays the foundations of what would become the Eucharist we all celebrate to this day. If we do not accept the gift of his flesh and blood then we have no life in us, he says. Today is a further elaboration of this basic – and on the face of it – shocking, teaching. But today’s teaching  has the key to understanding it. Jesus says today that flesh “is of no avail”, and that it is spirit “that gives life”. So he must be talking somehow of a spiritual flesh and blood that will give life. Even so, this was the final straw for many of his followers, spirit or no spirit. Such a teaching was way beyond their understanding or tolerance. Many left him, hence Jesus’ plaintiff question to his closest friends today, “Do you also want to leave?” The fact that his closest disciples did not leave him might be behind Jesus’ statement that they remain because God the Father has granted them such loyalty. They are of course free to leave, but at Peter says, where else could they get such incredible teaching which carried with it the gift of eternal life, even though they almost certainly did not understand it? They had accepted that he was the Holy One of God, the long desired Messiah, and that was why they still followed him. Almost certainly, on the other hand, his teachings must have bewildered them. No-one had ever taught such things before, but they trusted him so deeply that they knew somehow it would lead to holiness, to eternal life.

The second reading seems to attempt to give a human parallel to the relationship between God and the followers of Jesus, the church. With deepest respect on both sides, two people who love one another truly and profoundly become one in their union. In the same way God and Jesus’ followers, whom we call the church, are also united in love and become one together. Just as God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has demonstrated the qualities of power, loyalty, forgiveness, mercy, the ability to listen, the love of freedom and an openness to relationship through the Scriptures and through human history, so we must show those same qualities towards God and each other today, and so become one in mutual love and respect. Hence in that way, true Christians reflect here on earth the image of heaven, with the life of Jesus at its heart animated by the Holy Spirit This fulfills the very teaching we see in today’s gospel, because where else can we go to find  the words of eternal life?


Jesus Goes Up Alone Onto a Mountain to Pray, 1886-1894, Jacques Tissot, Watercolor Series of the Life of Christ, The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, USA.





In Memoriam, The Last Supper, Andrew White, Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Mayfair, London, England.

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.  John 6:51.

The readings for the last few Sundays seem to concentrate on what could be called Jesus’ central message, that he is with us until the end of time, and that he invites us to be an intimate part of his eternal life here on earth in anticipation of being with him forever in the next. It is, after all, the most important message he came to deliver to us. He lives in and with us today by means of the Holy Spirit of God, just as all those years ago, guiding us, refreshing us and empowering us to be true followers. But on the face of it, it is a shocking image, as seen in the quotation from today’s gospel.

In the early days of the Christian church, when the “sacred mysteries” remained well and truly sacred and mysterious (it is thought the early Christians never talked openly about the Eucharist, and so rumors began to spread), the Roman authorities charged Christians with being cannibals! In addition, rumors also got out that they were brothers and sisters who loved each other, and were therefore incestuous; these people believed in only one God, which to the Romans with their pantheon of gods and goddesses, was tantamount to being atheists, another accusation. As Christians refused to worship those gods, who protected the Roman Empire, they were also traitors by endangering the very life of the empire. The link below talks of these and other accusations against early Christians.

Quite a lineup of deadly crimes, resulting in 300 years of persecution. But the cannibalism was among the worst of the charges. All the other “crimes” could be considered secondary to that one. The Romans simply did not understand what this Christian belief in the consumption of the body and blood of the Lord was all about, and I think we can all understand that confusion. Even reading the gospel today represents a challenge to us, 2000 years later. It sounds extraordinary and requires an effort to understand and accept it.

The ancient Hebrews through the course of 2000 years or so, began to understand who their God was, and what qualities or characteristics this God had. For example, the gods of the ancients above all other things, had to be powerful. People needed protection and help from events over which they had no control at all, such as disease, famine, natural disasters, invasion. So they looked to their gods for help. Therefore when Yahweh God descended to earth, to an old man, Abram, in Haran in Mesopotamia, power had to be among the first divine qualities revealed. Sure enough, it was. Abram’s old and barren wife, Sarai, gave birth to a son, Isaac. That was a power even we today could not match. She was about 80 years old! Instead of defeating an enemy or stopping a plague, God gave new life to an old barren couple. And so salvation history began.

Among the divine qualities revealed through the ages was loyalty or trustworthiness. God promised Abram and Sarai, now renamed Abraham and Sarah by God, land and descendants, which eventually came to be. Hence Jesus had to demonstrate the exact same quality in his mission so that he could be truly considered God’s Son. The last verse of Matthew’s gospel is his promise to be with us to the end of time. And today’s gospel reveals how he meant to achieve it. The bread and the wine, consecrated by the Holy Spirit, becomes his flesh and blood for the life of the world which we take into ourselves. So he is with us in the most intimate way to the end of time. He was, and is, loyal to his word. The consequences can be glimpsed in today’s second reading. Paul talks about the rewards of a decent life, one rich with God’s presence. 

And note the first reading. Proverbs talks about God’s Holy Spirit, an intimation of the full revelation of the Holy Spirit eventually given to us by the Lord. In Hebrew, God’s Spirit is feminine (unlike the unfortunate gender given the Holy Spirit in our translation of the gospels from the Greek original, where the word spirit is neutral). The first reading seems to suggest the Spirit of God is preparing a party, preparing us for a really good time: Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! This seems to be a wonderful elaboration of Jesus’ invitation to his banquet. But so often Christians seem to be a gloomy lot. Pope Francis has even suggested that ministers of communion should smile when fulfilling their office; after all, they are handing out the means by which we will achieve eternal life and happiness! A wonderful piece of advice I think.

And that sums up the message of this 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Jesus invites us into his life, his world, a world of unending joy, laughter, happiness, fulfillment, in an utterly unique and transforming way. So it is up to us to be sensible enough to accept this free gift, live up to its completely human expectations, and join the club!




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Millais_-_Christus_im_Hause_seiner_ElternJesus in the House of his Parents, 1850, John Everett Millais, Tate Britain, London, UK.

“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.”           John 6:51

……But isn’t he the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? So spoke the people listening to the brand new teaching Jesus was giving them. As we saw a few Sundays ago, it was well nigh impossible for Jesus’ neighbors to accept his teaching. In fact, today’s teaching is still striking 2000 years later! Giving one’s flesh for the life of the world??? Whaaat? There were striking stories from the Hebrew Scriptures about miraculous food, as seen in today’s first reading, but Jesus’ words went way beyond anything in the Old Testament. But bread, or some basic solid food, comes up several times in Scripture. There is of course the manna (which can be considered a kind of life-sustaining bread) in the desert, feeding the grumbling and complaining Hebrews, condemned to wander around the wilderness for 40 years because of their lack of belief. Elijah in the first reading has a “hearth cake” to eat, another image for bread. But most important of all is the unleavened bread of the Passover described in detail in the Book of Exodus. It had to be prepared in haste, hence no time for yeast to rise, to enable the Hebrews to be nourished sufficiently to escape from slavery in Egypt. In other words, it was the antidote for starving in the desert. It represented life in a rather more dramatic way than the humble loaf of bread might represent today. Jewish people to this day call Passover and the six days following  the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Hence it represents freedom from oppression as well as life-sustaining food, life to the fullest. But it could not last. Death comes to everything. And that’s exactly where Jesus stepped in with his new teaching. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” he said to the dumfounded people of Nazareth. And what was this bread? My flesh, was the answer. It is easier for us to understand what must have been their reaction to what Jesus said! But Psalm 34, today’s response, seems to be strongly prophetic: “Taste and see how good the LORD is…” Please note that LORD is capitalized. That means the original Hebrew text says YAHWEH, God’s most sacred name. But how could a Hebrew possibly taste God? They had to wait until today’s teaching, heralding the beginning of a new age.

Jesus bravely launched into even greater mystery by declaring: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day.” He seemed to be announcing the end of death itself. Note that at the time of Jesus there was a huge debate going on in Jewish circles. For centuries there had been no commonly accepted definition of the afterlife. There was Sheol, a place of shadows to which everyone went, whether good or bad. It was bleak, silent, with no praise of God possible, no interaction, just a basic semi-existence. But a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus, other interpretations of the afterlife had emerged. By the time of Jesus this had settled into two disputing camps, the Sadducees, who denied any afterlife or resurrection, and the Pharisees, who accepted those ideas. So it is clear that Jesus stood with the Pharisees, at least in this instance. It is also clear that those who had lived a just and good life would be among the elect, those who would spend eternity with God and the angels, and with Jesus, who would be the means to securing that reward.

So it is not too surprising that those hearing Jesus’ message for the first time would have some difficulty taking it in. It was in effect a brand-new teaching, never heard before. That made it even more difficult for them to accept this, from the son of a carpenter! But do we accept it fully and unquestioningly? Have we come to terms with Jesus’ message that it all depends on him? Will he raise each one of us up on the last day? There lies today’s challenge; this is the thought, or rather challenge, for the day. Do our actions, words and thoughts invite Jesus, the bread of life, into the deepest realms of our life and spirit? If so, then we are on the right path. If not, there is still time to change things. Jesus waits for us no matter the path we are on, but he stands at the end of the path of righteousness, but it is up to us to choose to walk on that path of light. Jesus guide me and help me.


The Last Judgement, 1435, Stefan Lochner, Wallraf-Wicharts Museum, Cologne, Germany.




breadThe Last Supper, 1467, Dierik Bouts, Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven, Belgium.

“I am the bread of life….”           John 6:35

The greatest prophet in the Old Testament was Moses. The 10 Commandments were delivered into his hands by God on Mount Sinai. God spoke to him in the burning bush and revealed the sacred name YAHWEH to him. He guided the people out of Egypt through the waters into freedom. Yet despite all that, despite leading the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, Moses was destined never to enter the Promised Land, just see it from a distance before he died. Scholars ever afterwards have wondered why. Today’s first reading is their favorite explanation. The Israelite murmuring, complaining, grumbling about their condition and discomfort seemed to suggest a lack of trust in God. Perhaps God expected more of Moses in dealing with that; perhaps God blamed Moses for the distrust the people seemed to have in God. Scripture does not answer the question. All we know is that it seems God does not like to be distrusted. One of God’s many qualities is loyalty: if God says something will be done, it will be done. The Israelites were promised the Promised Land (clearly), but moaned about how long it was taking and how uncomfortable things were as they waited, even to suggesting that they were better off in Egyptian slavery!

Today’s gospel has a little reflection of this attitude: “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do?This, of course, was immediately after the miracle of the loaves and fishes (last week’s gospel), paralleling the miraculous manna in the desert sent to calm the nerves of the wandering Hebrews centuries before. The contemporaries of Jesus were, in a way, going through the same experience as their predecessors – and remaining just as skeptical. Then came the critical response to their question quoted above demanding (another) sign from Jesus so that they could believe in him. They had chosen a singular miracle from the past, the astonishing appearance of manna in the desert which had nourished their ancestors. Jesus points out that this food, like everything else, eventually perished or stopped, even this bread from heaven. But, Jesus pointed out, the bread he would give them would be eternally life-giving. Of course they wanted that bread: “Sir, give us this bread always”. And then the answer: “I am the bread of life…”  This bread will never perish, never run out, never fail in any way. It is to be trusted. And just as one of God’s qualities is loyalty, Jesus has stood by this promise ever since. It is the heart of the Christian faith, the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. Around this circles all the life of the church, the life of Christians everywhere. As stated in the famous “Lima Text” of the World Council of Church’s document, p.14, #14:

In the celebration of the eucharist, Christ gathers, teaches and nourishes the Church. It is Christ who invites to the meal and who presides at it. He is the shepherd who leads the people of God, the prophet who announces the Word of God, the priest who celebrates the mystery of God.            Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Paper No. 111, Geneva, 1982.

This is Jesus’ way of fulfilling his promise to be with us to the end of time, another instance of his loyalty towards us. Just as Jesus strengthens us in this central act, we in return give thanks, the actual meaning of the word eucharist. This is the strength with which we face life’s crises and demands. With the Lord firmly planted within us, we Christians can face both impossible odds and wondrous happiness with the confidence of God’s children. No wonder those people back then wanted him to give them this bread always. We still do, thousands of years later, only now we don’t grumble; we say “thanks”.