The fragrant aroma and the hard truth: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 6:41–51:

The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 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.”

At some point, everyone learns this bit of wisdom: Don’t ask questions when you’re not prepared to hear the answers. Sometimes we learn this as children dealing with our parents, or as parents dealing with our children, and maybe especially then. “What’s that song saying? — Wait, never mind, I don’t want to know. Just turn it off.” Sometimes enlightenment is an uncomfortable and challenging occasion, and sudden enlightenment even more so. The natural reaction is to reject what we learn almost as a reflex, the more so when the truth forces us to rethink our deeply held grasp of reality.

On the other hand, turning away from the question can be worse … as every parent eventually learns, too. We are called to discern, especially on matters of the Lord and our vocations, whatever they may be, but with open hearts and a desire to conform our will to the Lord rather than confirm the supremacy of our own wills. Failing to discern or simply giving up is another kind of sin — acedia, in fact, or what it is meant by sloth in the seven deadly sins.

Both Jesus and Elijah provide us with examples of these, albeit somewhat indirectly, in our readings today. In our first reading from 1 Kings, the prophet has fled into Judah after Jezebel threatens his life, and has wandered in discouragement into the desert. Not only does Elijah not know what the Lord has in store for him, he doesn’t care; he considers himself an abject failure, even after rebuilding the altar of the Lord in Israel. He asks God to take his life rather than continue on, unmindful of his own vocation. The Lord blesses Elijah with food — twice — and twice has an angel tell him to eat, drink, and come to His mountain. It turns out that the Lord has many more plans for His prophet, who will later be taken bodily into heaven in a whirlwind.

Today’s Gospel and its following passages reminds us what happens when people go too far in avoiding acedia — demanding much while hardening their hearts to what is provided. Jesus has just performed the miracle of the Multiplication, and the crowds wanted to know why He left afterward to go across the Galilee. Jesus explained that their hunger remained because they only focused on the food and not His Word, at which point they demanded a sign to follow up on the miracle. Jesus explains that He is the sign, and that He will become “the bread of life” as an ongoing sign.

Our Gospel today extends this explanation, with Jesus’ rebuke when He hears their cynical response. However, this explanation doesn’t suit them either, as the crowd demands Jesus answer “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” This turns out to be the question asked to which the questioner doesn’t want to know the answer:

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.[“]

At this point, most in the crowd abandon Jesus, revulsed at the image of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Jesus anticipates this reaction, and makes it clear He is not speaking metaphorically to the remaining disciples. Jesus offers no easy metaphorical explanation or deconstruction of parable, as He would normally do when His parables were not clear to other followers. Jesus trusted the disciples with direct teachings, and in this case tested their resolve with this “hard saying.”

They had asked for a sign; Jesus gave it to them — and would shortly establish it in the Eucharist. The multitudes were not prepared to hear the answer at that time, which Jesus understood, but also knew that the disciples would carry the answer forth after His ascension. in the church He established. The Eucharist would be the sign for which they hungered, and it would bring eternal life through the Holy Spirit. They had just asked the question without being prepared for the answer.

This is a lesson which happens over and over again throughout salvation history. Moses balked at leading the Lord’s people out of slavery; Jonah ran away from the Lord and had to be hauled back by a “great fish”; saints through the ages rebelled against God’s call to His service before finally submitting to His will. We ask the questions and then recoil at the answers, but the Lord helps us prepare when we sincerely want to conform to His will rather than confirm our own.

Paul reminds the Ephesians in our second reading that we are not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” but allow the Paraclete to occupy our hearts as Christ Himself showed His love to all. “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,” Paul writes, “as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” When we want those answers, we have to be willing to hand ourselves over to the Lord in a similar manner.

In that way, we will both taste and see the goodness of the Lord, as the Psalm states. And we will find, when we have discerned His will and conformed to it, that the answers all add up to God’s abundant love for all.

Note: I will be on vacation the next two weekends and will not have any Sunday reflections.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Desert” by Nicolas Poussin, 1637-39. On display in the Louvre; via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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Jazz Shaw 12:01 PM on November 30, 2022