Having revealed himself throughout this series of events as the “I am”, the unique means of salvation, at their conclusion we find the disciples disturbed by what they have heard. “This is a hard saying”, they cry, “who can listen to it?” (Jn 6: 60). In his reply the Lord does not relent, but says, “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6: 63). And whilst many of the disciples desert him, Simon Peter professes, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6: 68). Conscious of this, and of our desire to remain in and with Christ by our union with Peter and the Church of Christ founded upon him, we must ask: What does it mean to remain with Christ and to accept as “the words of eternal life” what we (and others) might call “a hard saying”?
Incorporated into Christ in baptism, we remain in the love of Christ when we choose to live in an exclusive way according to his precepts. When we prefer our way over the Way, we walk away from Christ and put to death the relationship with him begun in us in baptism, returning only when with a contrite heart we come to plead and receive his forgiveness in sacramental confession. We strive, therefore, to keep this relationship alive by continually offering ourselves as spiritual worship: “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12: 1). This “living sacrifice” is the moral life which, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “finds its source and summit in the Eucharistic sacrifice” (CCC 2031). Thus it is in the Most Holy Eucharist that we perceive the goal of the moral life, that is eternal life with God, and receive the grace we need to run the race of this life and win the cherished prize in the next (1 Cor. 9: 24). This grace, however, requires from us a response. It is insufficient for us to come to the Lord, and then not seek to do something with the gifts which he bestows on us. And this, we might say, is the “hard saying”; the challenge before us.
In the prophecy of Jeremiah we read, “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns” (Jer. 4: 3). Saint Thomas Aquinas interprets this, writing: “Whoever purposes to do a work wisely, first removes the obstacles to his work” (ST, III, q. 71, a. 2, Respondeo). In other words, if we desire to receive grace and allow it to conform us to the life of heaven, thereby remaining in the love of Christ for all eternity, we must first prepare for its reception. This we do by establishing within our lives habits of virtue, by which our thoughts and actions are consistently oriented toward beatitude. This, in turn, allows the ample grace we receive in the sacraments to transform us into the likeness of Christ. As Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (De beatitudinibus, 1:PG 44,1200D). Thus a truly Eucharistic life, which is alone the true life of the Christian, is built on a solid foundation of virtue—a life lived with the unique goal of eternal salvation. Just as we see in the Most Holy Eucharist “a pledge of future glory given to us”, so in a Eucharistic life we see as the goal of all our endeavours unending union with Christ, that is heaven.
This is hard. It requires of us a certain determination to set our minds “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Yet we are encouraged to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and . . . run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12: 1). United in the faith of Saint Peter, we know that ultimately there is no other way: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6: 68). We know that in recognizing Christ as the supernatural food prefigured in the feeding of the five thousand that we recognize our need of his nourishment to reach the goal of our eternal bliss. We know that in acknowledging Christ as “the bread of life” that we acknowledge our need to receive him in order to become more closely conformed to his risen life. We know that in believing Christ to be the unique means of our eternal salvation that we profess that no other thought, or word, or action, can be more important to us than the way that he lays down for us. There is nowhere else for us to go, for he has the words of eternal life (cf. Jn 6: 68).
In presenting to us these revolutionary truths, Almighty God has caused “the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose . . . to love what [he commands] and to desire what [he has promised] that, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found” (Collecta, Dom. XXII per annum). May this purpose be ever present in our hearts and minds, converting our every living moment to the noble task of our sanctification, and that of the whole world. May we let nothing whatsoever distract us from the task of winning and maintaining our union with Christ, the very person who has come to offer us his life. And, in living lives ever-conformed to his way, his truth, and his life, may we be cleansed of our sins, and through the Most Holy Eucharist, made worthy to share at the table of his heavenly kingdom for all eternity (cf. Ordo ad faciendam et aspergendam aquam benedictam).
This homily is part of a series on the Bread of Life discourse, delivered in Washington. You can read the complete set by clicking here.