Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost), 2018.
There are I suppose two main ways to interpret the question that Jesus poses to the Twelve men, “Do you also wish to go away?” It could be that Jesus is gravely disappointed that His message is not catching on—gravely disappointed in what is turning into a kind of failure, even on the verse of weeping and tears. Read in this way there is a poignancy to the question, and Jesus is showing to the Twelve his vulnerability, He shows, so to speak, His cards as if in a game of poker, and lays down His hand, saying, this is what I have, Jesus not knowing whether His cards were strong enough to win the hearts of the Twelve, having apparently lost the hearts of dozens more disciples who we are told drew back at the hard saying and no longer went about with Him.
In this line of interpretation, we are tempted to empathize with Jesus, almost to feel sorry for Him. And certainly as we have seen wider society draw back from Jesus as society has done over the last fifty years, with fewer Americans attending the Church, we can feel a certain kind of solidarity with Simon Peter, who, as he does so often throughout the New Testament, speaks on behalf of the whole Body of the Twelve when he says, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Life in a parish church can be at times a frustrating experience, and yet when the conditions are right, there is nothing more glorious: a community united in prayer participating in the heavenly banquet with Christ transfigured before us.
The other way to interpret the question that Jesus posed is to see Our Lord not disappointed amid failure, but provocative amid reality. That is to say, not the last-ditch plea of a helpless teacher or parent, but the card play of a wise pastor with a winsome smile on His face. He knows His teaching is incendiary. Upon the profound teaching of the verses previous to our passage today (on the absolute necessity to eternal life of eating His Flesh and drinking His Blood), Jesus begins to teach that He will ascend to heaven, and that from heaven is where He came in the first place—His Ascension and His preexistence, on top of the straight teaching on the Eucharist.
Does Jesus know what He is doing here in this teaching? Is He completely in control of Himself, knowing what He is doing when He is doing it? Of course He is. He is the curate of all of our souls, the pastor to the flock of humanity. This long discourse in Saint John’s gospel presents us with, on one hand, Jesus Christ, the God-Man, and on the other, a group of ordinary people who to varying degrees put up walls that prevent the full reception of the truth—why? because that is what human beings do, human being put up walls, they blind their eyes, they close their ears, harden their hearts: this is the fallen world of creation. And although in many instances in the Gospels it seems to be the Twelve, all men, who put up walls to the truth far higher than many women do, here we should recognize that the Twelve, unlike all of the other disciples hearing the hard sayings of Jesus, do not leave, but stay, and recognize that Jesus, no matter how little of His teaching they understand, none the less has the words of eternal life, and is the Holy One of God.
It is worth noting Peter’s attitude is the attitude of Blessed Mary at the Annunciation and to varying—Mary was troubled at being called by Gabriel as the one who is full of grace (and this, before she heard anything of his message), yet none the less said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Saint Peter, speaking for the Twelve, says in effect the very same in the same pattern established by Our Lady. Perhaps by now the Blessed Mother had started to have a positive effect on the Twelve.
It is this second way of thinking that finds the most resonance with the whole of Scripture. From the whole of Scripture we see that God is always in control, He never gives us more than we can handle, but He does push us to grapple with more than we think we can handle. The perfect example is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the manifest expression and instantiation of the New Covenant. The Eucharist is God’s new testament, given and shed for us and the forgiveness and remission of sins. We eat His sacrifice—born of a woman as the hope of all creation; we drink His life—the Eternal, preexisting Word, the only begotten of the maker of all that is, seen and unseen. That is quite a lot, but prepared over the course of the Mass, and through our daily prayer as well as devotion according to the Bible, we can handle it, God is quite sure.
What’s more, this Covenant between us and the Father Almighty through His Son’s Body and Blood has a special characteristic in that it recapitulates and folds into it all of the covenants in the Old Testament between God and His people, beginning with the covenant made with Noah after the Flood, and later with Abraham, Moses, and with Joshua. God chose to make the Eucharist the covenant of covenants because He knew that by asking the two primary questions in mature Christian life—what does it mean? and what shall we do?—we will by the grace of His leading hand, be guided through the hard sayings, which are little more than the difficult slog up the mountain, the top of which is nothing less than Christ’s transfiguring white light.