Jesus had a discussion with a group of the people whom He had miraculously fed with loaves and fish—one that is profoundly enlightening for all who would follow Him, but that scandalized many, so much so that they closed their hearts and forsook their allegiance to Him altogether.
The people asked for a further sign, reminding him of one God worked for their ancestors in the desert: “it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” That was but a foreshadowing of the full revelation, for “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (vv. 32-33). At this point the people were still “with” Him, so they said: “Give us this bread always.”
Yet when Jesus offered it to them, they rejected it, because, as He said in another place, they could not bear to hear his word. They started to reason according to mere human perceptions and possibilities. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” But rather than try to accommodate their ignorance and their growing hostility, Jesus presses on to the profound point: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (v. 51).
Being still confined to the narrowness of their own concepts, they asked, incredulously: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” How indeed. It is only possible if He really is who He says He is: the Son of God, the Bread from Heaven. Undaunted by their unbelief, and unwilling to compromise the whole truth for the sake of making it easier for them to accept, the Lord drives the point home: “Amen, amen, I say to you [that is how He introduces his most solemn statements], 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” (vv. 53-56).
The people’s reaction was one that many people have today: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” The Gospel tells us that many no longer followed Jesus after hearing those words. If He were speaking in mere symbols or metaphors, which they had wrongly taken literally and hence withdrew from Him, He would have made the effort to gather them back, to explain it to them, for He did not come to drive people away but to gather them to Himself. But He was speaking the literal truth, and on that He could not compromise, for He is the truth—so He had to let them go. Either they believed or they didn’t; the choice to follow Him was theirs.
His words are clear: his flesh and blood are not symbolic food, metaphorical food, but real, true (alithis) food. It’s rather odd how some people can believe that the Son of God made the universe, healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water—and yet vigorously deny the possibility of his giving us his body and blood as food and drink unto eternal life, even though He explicitly said just that. Moreover, the Lord said that eating and drinking his body and blood is for the sake of the two most important things there are: abiding in Christ and attaining eternal life.
Through the ministry of the Church, in which Christ is ever present to communicate the fullness of his grace and to assure the fulfillment of his words for our salvation, we can eat and drink the flesh and blood of the Son of God, the Bread from Heaven who came to give life to the world. He gives life by giving Himself, the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist, as food for our pilgrimage to Heaven, as a precious means by which He abides in us and we in Him. Really, we must be aware that the Holy Eucharist is actually a gift straight from Heaven, which “connects” us to Heaven. It is a miracle in our midst, a Light shining in the darkness of this life, a ray of hope, life, truth, and love that secures us in the Heart of our Savior. To have Jesus’ body and blood within us is like a branch of the Vine receiving the nourishment it needs to live and be fruitful.
After many had left Jesus, refusing to believe his words, He turned to his closest friends: “Will you also go away?” He asks us the same question. Will we go away from Him because we can’t believe that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink? Many even in the Church today, having fallen away from true faith, and choosing to believe only the testimony of their senses or the modern, rationalistic, politically-correct (and woefully inadequate) approaches to God, in effect walk away from Him by removing the “spirit and life” from his words, diminishing their power, taming them to their tastes, and thus refusing to open themselves to the profound mystery of his inexpressible gift. But let us be among those who follow Jesus, even when He says things that make others refuse to believe. Let us eat the Bread from Heaven; it is given for the life of the world—given so that He can raise us up on the last day.