We are told that the response of many of those disciples of Jesus who heard this language was to turn away from Jesus. The way Jesus speaks of himself is ‘hard’. The Jerusalem Bible, which most Catholic churches in England use, translates it as ‘This is intolerable language’, which sounds rather like someone writing to the Daily Mail to complain about swearing on the BBC, but at least captures the sense that they are driven away from Jesus by the way he speaks.
And this is quite understandable: we have been told that we must eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood, or we cannot have life in us. Jesus’s flesh and blood are life-giving because he himself is sent by the Father and draws life from the Father (verse 56). This encapsulates the central mystery of Christ’s identity. He is at once absolutely flesh and blood, as we are, living and breathing, sweating and thirsting when it’s hot, bleeding when he is pierced and dying when he is hung on the tree. But at the same time he is absolutely united to the Father, eternally proceeding forth from him and with him and the Holy Spirit the source of all life, all existence.
Most extraordinary of all, though, is that he invites all people to share in his union with the Father through sharing, in the most intimately physical act of eating and drinking, in his human life, his human death and his human rising from the dead. This invitation is given, in this sermon recorded by St John, in words both beautiful and horrifying, both wonderful and appalling.
Little wonder, then, that the majority turn away. This invitation seems too magnificent to be real and too ghastly to accept. As it was in the beginning, so it is now: if the Christian Gospel is preached authentically, preached as it was first preached, it will inevitably meet with this reaction, and we know that it has done so since the earliest days of the Church. Neither should we feel ashamed if this same reaction rises in our hearts too. The mystery of who Christ is, and of the life he offers us, is deeper than the ocean and higher than the heavens. It is like the sun bursting in, and if we find ourselves blinking and tempted to put the pillow over our heads, that is only natural.
But the warmth of this sun seduces us out of our hiding places, and its brightness dares us to gaze at it, until we can do so unblinkingly in the glorious light of heaven. One of the vital themes of St John’s Gospel is this challenge to enter into the light, for all that it will show up our faults and failings, and not to be like those who prefer to scurry off into the dark corners.
There is a third possible reaction that the Gospel does not envisage. Perhaps it was not possible at the time, when Jesus was walking the earth, but it is possible and common enough now. That is to pretend that Jesus did not say what he said, or did not mean what he said. It is the temptation to reduce the mystery to a manageable size, to reassure ourselves that of course Jesus doesn’t really offer us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink… of course Jesus isn’t really saying that the sacramental sharing in his life and death are the means by which we enter into the eternal life of God.
But these hard words of Jesus are, as St Peter says, ‘the words of eternal life’. We can say with him that ‘we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’ It doesn’t matter that we cannot comprehend the mystery of the Eucharist; all will become clear in due time. It does matter that we acknowledge the reality of the invitation it offers us. To whom else, after all, shall we go?