24 August 2021, The Tablet

Jesus and the 'words of eternal life'

A sermon for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2021.

Jesus and the 'words of eternal life'

“To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”
Andrew Angelov / Alamy

“To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”

The long sixth chapter of St John’s gospel, which we’ve heard over the last few weeks, is a sustained meditation on the Eucharist, beginning with the feeding of the five thousand and ending today with Peter’s confession of faith, uttered with his characteristically direct and disarming simplicity: “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”

But it is also a sustained meditation on the Incarnation itself, suggesting that we can grasp the meaning of the Eucharist only in the light of the Incarnation, because it’s in the Eucharist that we experience the Incarnation most explicitly.

That’s why, in the Tridentine Rite, Mass was concluded with The Last Gospel, the recitation of John’s prologue, centred on the words: “And the Word became flesh.” God has revealed Himself in our flesh, the flesh which is our home and, in doing so, our humanity has become His home. Notice that “humanity” here means not some supped up version, but precisely the fragile, frail fleshly humanity which is us. But, now, this “poor potsherd”, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s words, truly is “immortal diamond”: every last bit of it and every last bearer of it.

“The Word became flesh” is, in other words, not a metaphor. We don’t need to see through Jesus’ humanity, as it were, in order to see and know God: Jesus the man is God, God en-fleshed. And it follows that we don’t need to see through our flesh to arrive at the real you and me, as if the real person lies concealed beneath the flesh.

We are body and soul, neither one nor the other, but a unity of both. Our bodies are not an afterthought or an error, but part of our very essence. As much was obvious to such clear-minded Christian thinkers as St Thomas Aquinas. And remember Wittgenstein’s remark that: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”

That’s why death is so painful: it is the temporary sundering of our nature. We’re are not fully human, St Thomas says, until reunited with our bodies after death, in the resurrection of the body. Flesh is, of course, an uncomfortable topic. Words, we’re happy with but of the flesh we’re wary: it’s apt to let us down, it’s never wholly within our control, it can all-too-easily compromise our carefully nurtured, much-prized, self-image of disciplined respectability. It can impel us in ways we hardly dare acknowledge, even to ourselves, let alone to anybody else. And, of course, it eventually wears out and we die.

So we stick with words and fain distance from flesh. But, there is no getting away from it. The Word became flesh and, in doing so, He made Himself not just like us but one of us: vulnerable to hurt, pain and sorrow, but also capable of love, compassion, fidelity and solidarity, not just in words but in the flesh, for real. St Francis of Assisi records that the crucial moment of his conversion was when he encountered a leper. Where before he’d seen in the putrid, decomposing flesh of the leper a loathsome, revolting thing, now he recognised a fellow human being, his brother. More, he recognised his brother, Christ Himself: the leper and Christ could no longer be separated. Both were in the flesh. From then on, he saw Christ in every human being. The Eucharist, said the Second Vatican Council, is the source and summit of the Christian life; and it is that because in the Eucharist, the Word made flesh shares his divine life with us, with whom he shares our life in the flesh, our human life. It follows that all who share in this flesh are indissolubly one, because we now share it with God Himself; and it’s in the Eucharist that that sharing is made most explicit. That’s why Peter speaks for us all when he makes his profession of faith: “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”

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