Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 22)

The Gospel passage for this Sunday’s Mass is the conclusion to the Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel According to John. We’ve been listening to these passages since July 25 except for last Sunday because of the special readings used for the Assumption. If Aug. 15 was on a weekday we would have heard the next passage in the sequence.

This passage is important because Jesus has been taking us step by step, deeper and deeper, into our understanding of him as the Bread of Life.

The passage of which I speak is John 6:52-59. We need to first recall and look at this section before proceeding to this week’s Gospel reading. Just before this passage Jesus states: “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.”

Questions continue to arise about what he means. Then he says:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

At this point in the discourse he speaks directly of “eating” and “drinking” his flesh and blood. Naturally this would be met with questions. When this language was used in the early church, members were actually accused of cannibalism. The call to faith which we have been hearing all along is a call to have faith in him and what he is saying. Jesus associates his offering or sacrifice (on the cross) with the action of eating and drinking. We participate in this through the celebration of the Eucharist.

The Catholic belief is that in the Eucharist we “remember” Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. The understanding of “remember” is not commonplace. When we “remember” somehow, sacramentally, the event of our salvation is made present to us now. In this celebration, the reception of Communion, the consecrated host and wine, now the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ, is directly associated with Jesus’ instructions in the discourse. Through this participation we share in eternal life and are nourished in our journey.

The passages of the discourse conclude this week continuing. It begins by more “murmuring” among the disciples. They are having a difficult time understanding what Jesus is talking about. He acknowledges the challenges but takes it even further by saying: “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” In this he is speaking about his death and resurrection.

Now Jesus turns to the Spirit who will help the disciples to believe. Seeing things through the eyes of man (flesh) will be of no avail because that can only take us so far. Faith is needed (associated with spirit) which will lift man up to trust and accept Jesus and what he is saying (and doing). Jesus says: “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.”

Some of the disciples depart for they are not willing to take this “leap” of faith. When Jesus asks the Twelve if they too will leave, Peter replies: “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.”

Peter’s response brings everything together. The Twelve have heard the call to faith in Jesus. Jesus has invited them along with many others to believe. Peter, now speaking on behalf of the Twelve, acknowledges and acclaims Jesus. It is a profession of faith. They will trust. They will continue to walk with him on the journey. Their faith is not perfect – when they finally arrive at the passion, Peter will deny him – but it is real.

Jesus invites us to put our faith in him. The life he offers is eternal, not temporary. This gift is given to us by the Father through the Son. Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection manifest his faith in the Father which breaks the bonds of sin and death.

St. Paul in speaking of baptism (as the means for our union with Christ) says: “We are indeed buried with him through baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead we too might live in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Baptism is the first of the initiation sacraments which lead to completion in our participation in the Eucharist. We sacramentally celebrate this life in the Eucharist. Jesus invites us to renew our faith in him through this celebration.

Every Sunday we gather as the Body of Christ (the church) to listen, to be with him, to listen to him and to be fed by him. The Bread of Life we receive nourishes and strengthens, heals and binds, and leads us forward on this journey of life toward life himself.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.