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Archbishop Follo: Words of Eternity

With the wish to understand as Saint Peter did that nothing is better than Christ who has words, which give eternity to everyone of us and to everything beautiful we bear in our heart.

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XXI Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – August 26, 2018
Roman Rite
Jos 24.1-; Ps 34; Eph 5,21-32; Jn 6,60-69
Ambrosian Rite
2Mac 7.1-2. 20-41; Ps 17; 2Cor 4,7-14; Mt 10.28-42
Sunday that precedes the martyrdom of Saint John the Precursor
1) Hard words that give eternity.
During the previous Sundays of this month of August, the Liturgy proposed to our meditation the discourse on the «Bread of life», which Jesus pronounced in the synagogue of Capernaum after having fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fishes. The Gospel of today’s Mass presents the reaction of the disciples to that speech. This reaction of disbelief is not anymore only for common people or the Jews, but it also involves the circle of the disciples. They «murmur» like Israel in the desert and like the Jews who are scandalized by Jesus who claims to be descending from heaven and to be the salvation for the world.
What is the reason for their unbelief? Here it is: «This saying is hard! Who can listen to it? «(Jn 6:60) a phrase that we could rewrite as follows:» This discourse is difficult; how can we accept it? » The difficulty does not only concern the faith in the Eucharist, that is, in the real presence of Christ in bread and wine, a presence judged impossible. The hardness and difficulty of the discourse refers to the whole content of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John: the offering of salvation that overcomes the narrow expectations of the common people and of the leaders of the Jewish people, namely the presence of the Son of God in the person of the carpenter’s son and above all the need to share his existence as a gift.
This revelation was incomprehensible even to the disciples because they understood it in a material sense. On the contrary, in those words, it was announced the paschal mystery of Jesus, in which he would give himself for the salvation of the world: the new presence in the Holy Eucharist.
Therefore, «from that moment many of his disciples went back» (Jn 6:66): going backward is precisely the opposite of the sequela, which is a forward movement reaching out towards ever deeper sharing. Faced with the unbelief that has now reached the heart of his community, Jesus does not change his words or re-explain them. Instead, he encourages reflection at the root of faith, in that mysterious depth in which the grace of the Father and the responsibility of man are called to meet.
Then Christ asks: «Do you also want to leave?» (Jn 6:67). In this case, too, it is Peter who answers in the name of the Twelve: «Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have words of eternal life and we have believed and known that you are the Holy One of God «(Jn 6,68-69).
Let us make ours the answer of the First of the Apostles and let us help ourselves to understand it with this comment from Saint Augustine of Hippo: «See how Peter, by the grace of God and by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understood? Why did he understand? Because he believed. You have words of eternal life. You give us eternal life by offering us your body [resurrected] and your blood [ yourself]. And we have believed and known. He does not say: we have known and then believed, but we have believed and then known. We believed in order to know. If, in fact, we wanted to know before believing, we would not have succeeded in knowing or believing. What did we believe and what did we know? That you are the Christ Son of God, that is, you are the same eternal life, and, in the flesh and in the blood, you give us what you yourself are «(Commentary on the Gospel of John, 27, 9).
2) The encounter with the Truth to eat.
How to strengthen our faith and believe in what St. Augustine reminds us in the paragraph just mentioned? First, we must have a heart that is not dull but tense. Secondly, do not listen to words but hear the Word that we encounter in silence.
The words of the Word, of the Word of God, are not just informing or narrating or instructing, but they give true life and nourish it for eternity.
The important thing is our adherence to faith, which has its roots in the heart. St. Paul writes: «It is with the heart that one believes to obtain justice» and adds: «and with the mouth, one makes the profession to have salvation» (Rom 10:10). It is from the roots of the heart that the profession of faith arises (see St. Augustine, Comm in the Gospel of John, Om. 26, 12) and it is with the heart nourished by the true Bread that we are rooted in the community of saints, of the people who dwell in Christ and in whom Christ dwells steadily.
A community that today presents again the Person of Lord Jesus, who comes to teach every man how to listen to the Father, how to love him, how to worship him in spirit and truth, how to give one’s life to him in full so that He makes it an instrument of his love and of his truth forever (as the today Gospel of the Ambrosian Rite indicates: Matthew 10, 28-42). Of the Church and of the Eucharist one can say: «Sacrament of piety, sign of unity, bond of charity. Those who want to live, have where to live and where to draw life from. May he let be approached, may he believe, then he will be incorporated, he will be vivified «(St. Augustine, Comm. To the Gospel of John, Om. 26, 1). In his Providence, God not only sustains us in being but gives us day by day a strength that makes us stay in his Love to proceed on the Way of Life.
Paul Claudel said that «the great truths are communicated only in silence». I would like to add that they are caught in adoration and are understood by eating the Bread of Heaven.
The attitude that summarizes the words of Peter is to stand before the Holy Sacrament in humble and silent adoration, cultivating in the heart not the doubt, but the desire of those who desire full communion with him.
The Amen, which the Church makes us say when we receive Communion thus acquires a profound meaning, because it repeats the same profession of faith as Peter: «Not without reason you say Amen recognizing that you take the body of Christ; when you present yourself to receive it, the Bishop tells you: the body of Christ! And you answer: Amen! That is: it is true. May your soul keep what your word recognizes «(St. Ambrose).
May our Lady who has said her fiat, her yes, let us obtain the humility of heart to recognize the desire and the greatness of the divine Gift given to us in the Bread of Life.
Even St. Peter, with the answer on which we are meditating, renews his fiat, his yes to Christ. How can we imitate it? Entrusting ourselves completely to Christ, renewing our yes too, with prayer, with Eucharistic adoration, and with communion for receiving which we say: «Amen», that is «Yes».
The basic problem is not to go and abandon the work undertaken because the words are «hard», “but it is to whom to go. From Peter’s question, we understand that fidelity to God is a question of fidelity to a person, with whom one binds oneself to walk together on the same path. This person is Jesus. Everything we have in the world does not satisfy our hunger for the infinite. We need Jesus, to be with him, to feed us at his table, at his words of eternal life «(Pope Francis) To believe in Christ, the incarnate Truth means making him the center of our life.
A particular example of how to put Christ at the center of life is given by the consecrated Virgins in the world. These women understood that the Lord is the one whose words make life alive, and with their consecrated life they bear witness that Christ is the heart of the world.
Every day, each of them says to Christ: «You have words of eternal life» (Jn 6:68) not so much with words but with one’s own life fully offered to the Bridegroom. In fact, their virginal life, referring to Christ, is fed by His Word of life and nourished by His Bread that does not perish.
These women show that Christ has «words of eternal life» not only because he heals the soul and body, but because Christ is the meaning of the human life and its polar star. They must profess the proud conscience that Christ is the new man. His plan of life is the way and the truth of the human experience because it is its life in fullness. They can say it by showing first of all that this makes them grow, hope and love. If Christ is the doctor, he is so because he is the gift of the Father for every man and every woman. If Christ is the truth, he is so because he asserts himself as an attractive truth for everyone’s heart. If Christ is the way, he is so because He has given us the Spirit of love that leads us into the heart of God. If Christ is all of this, then he is life; yes: the good and full life. In short, they witness that only Christ «word of life» gives life and peace and joy: they have given themselves to Love and receive love to be spread in the daily life.
We can do the same in front of the Sunday Eucharist, in front of this gesture that sometimes appears harsh and distant. The temptation to suspend the practice while waiting to understand it better indicates an illusory perspective: in fact, only by practicing the sacrament can we deepen its meaning. Only by listening to Christ and entrusting ourselves to him, who entrusts himself to us in communion, we will understand that only the Lord has words that make life alive.
Patristic reading
Saint John Chrysostom (344/354 – 407)
on John 6: 60-65
“But many of the disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is a hard saying.”
What means “hard”? Rough, laborious, troublesome. Yet He said nothing of this kind, for He spake not of a mode of life, 16 but of doctrines, continually handling the faith which is in Him. What then means, “is a hard saying”? Is it because it promiseth life and resurrection? Is it because He said that He came down from heaven? Or that it was impossible for one to be saved who ate not His flesh? Tell me, are these things “hard”? Who can assert that they are? What then means “hard”? It means, “difficult to be received,” “transcending their infirmity,” “having much terror.” For they thought that He uttered words too high for His real character, and such as were above Himself. Therefore they said,
“Who can hear it?”
Perhaps making excuse for themselves, since they were about to start away.
Jn 6,61-62. “When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples murmured at it,” (for this is an attribute of His Godhead to bring secret things to light,) “He said unto them, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see 17 the Son of Man ascend up where He was before?”
This also He doth in the case of Nathanael, saying, “Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig-tree, believest thou? Thou shall see greater things than these.” (c. 1,50). And to Nicodemus, “No man hath ascended up to heaven but the Son of man which is in heaven.” (c. 3,13). What then, doth He add difficulties to difficulties? No, (that be far from Him,) but by the greatness of the doctrines, and the number of them, He desireth to bring them over. For if one had said simply, “I have come down from heaven,” and added nothing more, he would have been the more likely to offend them; but He who said, “My body is the life of the world”; He who said, “As the living Father hath sent Me, so I live by the Father”; and who said, “I have come down from heaven,” solves the difficulty. For the man who utters any one great thing concerning himself may perhaps be suspected of feigning, but he who connects together so many one after another removes all suspicion. All that He doth and saith is intended to lead them away from the thought, that Joseph was His father. And it was not with a wish to strengthen, but rather to do away that stumbling-block, that He said this. For whosoever deemed that He was Joseph’s son could not receive His sayings, while one that was persuaded that He had come down from heaven, and would ascend thither, might more easily give heed to His words: at the same time He bringeth forward also another explanation, saying,
Jn 6,63. “It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.”
His meaning is, “Ye must hear spiritually what relateth to Me, for he who heareth carnally is not profited, nor gathereth any advantage.” It was carnal to question how He came down from heaven, to deem that He was the son of Joseph, to ask, “How can he give us His flesh to eat?” All this was carnal when they ought to have understood the matter in a mystical and spiritual sense. “But,” saith some one, “how could they understand what the ‘eating flesh’ might mean?” Then it was their duty to wait for the proper time and enquire, and not to abandon Him.
“The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.”
That is, they are divine and spiritual, have nothing carnal about them, are not subject to the laws of physical consequence, but are free from any such necessity, are even set above the laws appointed for this world, and have also another and a different meaning. Now as in this passage He said “spirit,” instead of “spiritual,” so when He speaketh of “flesh,” He meant not “carnal things,” but “carnally hearing,” and alluding at the same time to them, because they ever desired carnal things when they ought to have desired spiritual. For if a man receives them carnally, he profits nothing. “What then, is not His flesh, flesh?” Most certainly. “How then saith He, that the flesh profiteth nothing?” He speaketh not of His own flesh, (God forbid!) but of those who received His words in a carnal manner. But what is “understanding carnally”? It is looking merely to what is before our eyes, without imagining anything beyond. This is understanding carnally. But we must not judge thus by sight but must look into all mysteries with the eyes within. This is seeing spiritually. He that eateth not His flesh, and drinketh not His blood, hath no life in him. How then doth “the flesh profit nothing,” if without it we cannot live? Seest thou that the words, “the flesh profiteth nothing,” are spoken not of His own flesh, but of carnal hearing?
Jn 6,64. “But there are some of you that believe not.”
Again, according to His custom, He addeth weight to His words, by foretelling what would come to pass, and by showing that He spake thus not from desire of honor from them, but because He cared for them. And when He said “some,” He excepted the disciples. For at first He said, “Ye have both seen Me, and believe not” (Jn 6,36); but here, “There are some of you that believe not.”
For He “knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray Him.”
Jn 6,65. “And He said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto Me except it were given unto Him from above from My Father.”

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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