Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
What does it mean that our Lord’s saying is “hard”? Now, it could mean that it’s difficult to understand. And since our Lord was speaking about the Eucharist – the mystery of faith – that would be a fair reaction. It’s just too hard to grasp.
But that’s not what it means. The word “hard” here indicates something offensive or intolerable. That is why our Lord asks, “Does this shock [literally, scandalize] you?” In other words, “Do you find it offensive and intolerable?” He doesn’t ask if it confuses them, because by this point in the Bread of Life discourse, He has already clarified His teaching several times. They understand Him clearly enough; they are simply unwilling to accept what He taught. The problem here is not in the intellect, but the will.
More to the point, they were unwilling to accept what He taught because then they would have to change their lives. He was inviting them to yield their earth-bound view to His supernatural truths: “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.” (Jn 6:63) They intuited what His words meant: If this teaching was true, they would have to change their lives accordingly. So, they balked. Even after witnessing His miracles and signs, they still could not entrust themselves to His teaching. “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” (Jn 6:66)
These disciples fall into the same backsliding as their ancestors in the Exodus. The Israelites who followed Moses out into the wilderness eventually wearied of trusting in the Lord and His miraculous manna. At a certain point they said, “Thus far and no farther.” They even began to long for the fleshpots in Egypt and a return to that land of slavery. (cf. Ex 16:3; Nm 14:4) So also, the disciples who followed Christ out into the desert sought Him because He fed them miraculously, but not because He had the words of eternal life. (cf. Jn 6:68) Thus, those who had been fed by Him, who had witnessed His miracles, now return “to their former way of life.”
All of this brings to mind what has come to be called “Eucharistic coherence” – the simple truth that those who receive the Eucharist ought to live lives coherent with It. Now, this has become inexplicably controversial. In fact, “Eucharistic coherence” is a fairly low bar. After all, we shouldn’t strive to live in a manner that is simply coherent with our reception of the Eucharist. Rather, we should strive to draw life and the very meaning of our lives from the Eucharist. Put differently, our lives should be coherent with the Eucharist because they are determined by It.
The disciples in Capernaum recognized what was being asked of them. They found the saying hard precisely because they perceived that to accept it meant to live in coherence with it. Unlike many today who receive the Eucharist in an incoherent manner, those disciples at least had the integrity to recognize their unwillingness and walk away.
Dietrich von Hildebrand writes that to be a disciple of Christ requires “the readiness to change, the waxlike receptiveness to Christ.” (emphasis added) Operative throughout a Christian’s life, this disposition applies most of all to our reception of the Eucharist. In Saint Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, our Lord uses just this image to describe the reception of Communion: “When this appearance of bread has been consumed, I leave behind the imprint of my grace, just as a seal that is pressed into warm wax leaves its imprint when it is lifted off.”
Eucharistic coherence requires the willingness – indeed, the desire – to receive the imprint of Christ, no matter how “hard” His teaching might be. Thus, we should dispose ourselves to receive what He desires to give. We should desire from Holy Communion what He wills, not what we will; it should effect in us what He wants, not what we want.
Of course, we shouldn’t fault the disciples in Capernaum too strongly. For them, the teaching on the Eucharist was something extraordinary, supernatural, and shockingly new. We have two millennia of teaching and witnesses to bolster our faith. And even with all those advantages, we can still fail in our Eucharistic devotion. So, like their ancestors in the desert, those disciples provide a cautionary tale. It makes no sense to note (and complain about) the Eucharisticincoherence of others if we do not strive to correct it in ourselves.
Again, von Hildebrand: “There are many religious Catholics whose readiness to change is merely a conditional one.” In other words, we’re always in danger of becoming like the disciples in Capernaum by limiting our readiness to change, finding His sayings too hard, and arriving at that point at which we say, “Thus far and no further.” Some come to that point when they encounter a hard teaching of Christ’s Church, others when they suffer some loss, pain, or scandal. Whatever the case, the result is the same: a hardness that resists His grace.
This, then, is a good way for us to prepare for Holy Communion – by asking for the proper docility and waxlike disposition so that the Eucharist benefits us as He desires and impresses His image upon us more deeply.
*Image: The Virgin Mary Receiving the Eucharist from Saint John the Apostle by an unknown artist of the Flemish School, c. 1650 [National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle]