Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

A Reflection on recent readings of the Gospel of John by Sister Ana Cloughly, OSB

The sequence of Sunday readings has been a bit out of sequence.  In the reading cycle dedicated to the Gospel of Mark, we take a five-week break and focus on the sixth and seventh chapters in the Gospel of John.  However, last Sunday we interrupted the course of those five weeks with John’s gospel and celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  So, to gain perspective on today’s gospel reading, I am going to do a bit of back tracking to the portion of John’s gospel that we missed.

To begin, let’s see what we missed,

“Jesus said to the crowds:

‘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.’”

Immediately after saying this the narrative says, “the Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

Jesus said to them,

“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.”

This portion of the Gospel of John is vital to our understanding of the Eucharist (meal of Thanksgiving) each Sunday.  As we have seen in the beginning of our five-week time with John, Jesus tells us “The work of the Father is to believe in the Son.”  Each week we gather as believers and celebrate and strengthen our belief. 

I was not raised in any faith tradition.  My parents thought we could choose what we wanted.  I chose to become Catholic when I was thirteen.  In preparation for baptism, I met with a priest and asked questions or brought up topics I wanted to discuss.  I remember asking about what exactly we were doing at Mass.  He directed me to this reading saying we would discuss it the next time we met.  The next week, we met and amidst an onslaught of questions, he decided the best way to answer me was to tell me “It is a mystery.”  At the time, I thought he copped out.  But I decided to go ahead with baptism because I believed Jesus was present at Mass.  Honestly, I know nothing more now than I did then except to say, I believe in the one God has sent and I believe in mystery. 

Imagine the scene as Jesus tells the crowds that his flesh is real bread and his real blood drink.  Images of cannibalism must have flashed through the minds of all gathered.  And so, we reach this week’s gospel.

“Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said,

“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,

he said to them, “Does this shock you?

What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending

to where he was before?

It is the spirit that gives life,

while the flesh is of no avail.

The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.

Until very recently in human history the only thing we could know empirically is our own flesh and blood.  Medical science, physical sciences, astrophysics, and quantum physics bring us to recognize there is much more that we can know.  For the people of Jesus’ time mystery was all they had.

“As a result of this,

many of his disciples returned to their former way of life

and no longer accompanied him.

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”

Simon Peter answered him, “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.”

At thirteen, mystery seemed like a cop out. Years later I took an in-depth course on the gospels.  When I learned all that the disciples had to endure to share the gospel (Good News) they received from Jesus, the mystery was less about Jesus’ presence at Mass and more about the miracle of the gospel, the great gift of God’s love lived out in Jesus. The gift of eternal life in the flesh and in spirit.  Jesus’ teachings were hard.  It took a huge amount of love for Jesus to preach a gospel of love, nonviolence and compassion in a very violent world.  Jesus himself embodied the truth he was sent to preach.  Watching his followers walk away must have been very disappointing.

I often think of that conversation with the priest.  There are so many times in my life that living the gospel was very hard.  Admittedly, I’ve often failed.  At those times, I feel Jesus asks me as he did his disciples, “Do you want to leave to?”  In the moment, it seems so easy to walk away.  But then, to whom shall I go?  You, Jesus have the words of eternal life.  Saying that Jesus’ presence at Mass is a mystery is no longer a cop out, it’s an invitation.

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