21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B); August 26, 2012
Jos 24:1-2a,15-17,18b; Ps 34; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69
Deacon Jim McFadden; Divine Savior C.C. & Folsom Prison
The Eucharist has been from the beginning a source of conflict and division. This, of course, was not Christ’s intention, for the Eucharist is supposed to be what unites us. Nevertheless, for the past two thousand years, the radical doctrine of the Real Presence has caused many to abandon Jesus. When a large crowd heard Jesus proclaim “unless you eat my Flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you…My Flesh is real food; my blood is real drink,” they walked away.
As the crowds leave him, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks the most poignant question in all of the New Testament: “Do you also want to leave” (v. 67)? What a question! You get the feeling that the whole Church, the whole Christian project is hanging in the balance: if they (the Twelve) leave, it’s over. If they leave, then Jesus stands alone.
There’s an interesting parallel with this passage from John and those in the synoptic gospels, when Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Who do people say that I am?” In both cases, there is something that is absolutely essential and striking at stake. “I know that some say I am a prophet or that I am John the Baptist come back from the dead. But, who do you say that I am?” It’s Peter who speaks in their name: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (cf. Mk 8:27-29). Peter, speaking for the Church, affirms the divinity of Jesus.
Here, in John’s gospel, he turns to the Apostles and asks will you leave too because of this teaching on the Eucharist? Again, it is Peter who speaks for them: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). That’s the great Catholic answer: we may not be able to explain it in everyday language, but we trust that what Christ speaks is the Truth. As the crowd leaves, the Church remains: Lord, we accept these words because they are Your words and the words of eternal life.
Brothers and sisters, these words on the Real Presence of Christ call forth a decision on our part—either we accept it or we don’t.
How are we going to respond?
In our first reading today, Joshua confronts the people: do you follow the Lord or not? “As for me and my family, we will follow the Lord” (cf. Jos 24:14-15). It’s an ‘either-or’ proposition; a decision had to be made and Joshua forced the question.
So, too, around the Eucharist, a decision has to be made; there is no wiggle room. There is considerable wiggle room with a number of questions within the Church: e.g., you can adapt a different style of spirituality whether it be Salvatorian, Franciscan, Jesuit, Dominican, or Benedictine, etc. You can find certain devotional practices that others may find less palatable. Maybe theologically you’re a Thomist where your friend gravitates towards Process Theology. There’s plenty of wiggle room in other issues of the Church, but none regarding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
In the 11th century a pious and brilliant monk by the name of Berengarius proposed a symbolic interpretation of the Eucharist. He said the Risen Body of Christ is in heaven in its gloried form. Therefore, it cannot be simultaneously on a variety of altars on earth and still be in heaven. Therefore, he concluded what you have at Mass is a symbolic representation of the glorified body of Christ in heaven. Your offering is a spiritual participation.
This seems commonsensical, rational, and relatively easy to grasp. The risen and glorified Christ sits on the Father’s right hand in heaven and on the altar below we have a symbolic representation.
But, the Church in the 11th century said “No” to Berengarius because his doctrine did not honor the realism and unequivocal meaning that we see in the sixth chapter of John. “My Flesh is real food and my Blood is real drink.” We saw last week that when Jesus was given the opportunity to offer a softer symbolic interpretation of his teaching, he upped the intensity by saying, according to the Greek, that unless you GNAW on my Flesh and drink my Blood, you have no life within you (v. 53).
It’s in this response to Berengarius that the Church develops this notion of trans-substantiation: that the substance of the bread and wine changes while what we see remains bread and wine. Jesus is really and fully present in this consecrated bread and wine.
People of God, the Eucharist is a difficult teaching: it is shocking, always has been, always will be. Good and smart people like Martin Luther, John Calvin and some contemporary theologians have looked for ways to explain it, to get around its unequivocal meaning. But, the Church has stubbornly said, “No” to those who would domesticate this teaching. And, so the question goes out to you and to me. When you hear this teaching, do you accept it or would you walk away?