Since I am a bit of a news junkie, I spend too much time on news websites. Some of them try to sensationalize the news, to get you to click on the story (and thus support their ad revenues). So they use/have attention-grabbing headlines, often with the word “shocking” in them (Shocking revelation about the President! Click here! -or- The Shocking truth about Prince Harry!). Kind of a cheap trick.
So it is a little surprising to see Our Lord Jesus Himself use this kind of language, acknowledging that His own teaching is “shocking.” As we wrap up the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6 at Mass this weekend (the teaching of Jesus Himself about how He gives us His Real Body and Blood to eat and drink in the Holy Eucharist), He says in verse 61, “Does this teaching shock you?” That’s the translation we use at Mass anyway. A better translation is, “Does this scandalize you?”
Our Lord clearly knows this teaching is difficult to understand, even shocking. The teaching that Jesus would come to us as literal food is so startling, so unexpected, that He either must be telling the truth, or He is concocting a wild lie, or He is simply not sane. But we know that the last two are not possible: Jesus is the ultimate reality and the ultimate Truth. Still, St. John records that this teaching is so unsettling that many of Jesus’ disciples simply walk away from the Lord, refusing to accept it.
But back to Jesus’ words: the Greek word scandalize that St. John uses is hard to translate. It means more than what it does in English (more than just shock or fill with indignation.) It literally means to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in someone’s way, to entrap someone or trip him up.
So from the beginning, Our Lord knew that the teaching on the Eucharist as His true Body and Blood would be an obstacle for many would-be believers. They might want to believe that everything that He taught is true, but just couldn’t accept that teaching. He even challenges His own disciples, “Will you, too, walk away!” Peter, as usual, in His deep-seated faith in and bold love of the Lord, despite his own confusion at this teaching, simply responds, “No Lord. Who else could we possibly go to? You alone have the words of everlasting life, and we believe with surety that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (It was not the first time that Peter spoke for all the Apostles in professing rock-solid faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God and it wouldn’t be the last).
Although it took many centuries, Our Lord’s recognition that many would walk away from this teaching was sadly to play out in the history of the Church. The Church has always believed, as challenging as the truth is, that Jesus meant literally what He said in John 6: “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”; “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you”). But in the 16th century’s European revolt against so much of what the Church had always taught (often called the “Reformation”), whole nations and peoples did just what those disciples did 1500 years before: walked away from the true teaching on the Eucharist, rejecting it because “it was a hard saying.” Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, refused to accept what the tradition of the Church had always held regrading this crucial teaching in St. John’s Gospel.
Today, because this sad division has become entrenched for so long, especially in mostly Protestant countries such as the U.S., many people attempt to minimize this difference, as if the rejection of the teaching on the Eucharist and the priesthood connected to it, is “no big deal.” We hear all too often, “Well, we believe mostly the same things, so the differences aren’t important.” This is not to say that we share nothing with our separated brethren, or that they are not good people, or that we can’t work together in shared areas of faith. But still, we can’t minimize the importance of this error.
Our Lord Himself did not minimize the teaching in any way. He let the disciples who rejected the truth walk away. When they said, “this teaching is too hard to accept,” He doesn’t whitewash it. He simply recognized – with great sadness – that they were walking away from the truth. And in so doing, they were walking away from the source of unfathomable graces that the Lord intended His disciples to have.
With all respect and charity, we should challenge those who have “walked away” to return to the Eucharist. One way to do so is to challenge them to read and pray John 6. You might be surprised how many Protestants have never really considered this chapter. Many of the interpretations of this chapter (“the Bread of Life just means that you will feed on the Word of God,” for instance), simply don’t make sense if the chapter is read carefully.
But we should also challenge our fellow Catholics who have “walked away” while remaining in the pews. We should not forget that many who receive the Bread of Life have perhaps never reflected on the significance of what they receive every Sunday or don’t believe what Jesus taught. If they don’t, they might just come to walk away for good.