The first creation comes about purely at God’s word – God says ‘let there be light’ and there is light – whereas the new creation, salvation or redemption, does not come about without the human creature’s graced involvement in it. The place where this is clearest is in the Annunciation, which is why it is such a central moment for our faith. The old creation waits expectantly on Mary’s word in response to the angel’s message. Her fiat, her ‘let it be done to me according to your word’, means this new reality is now underway.
There is an intimation of it in the first reading where Joshua calls the people to a decision. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, he says. You decide what you are going to do, either follow after other gods or commit yourselves to the Lord and his covenant, the God who brought you out of Egypt into this promised land. The people re-affirm the covenant and say that they too will serve the Lord.
Peter’s words in the gospel reading is a comparable affirmation or reception by the Church of what Jesus has been saying. This is John’s account of Peter’s great profession of faith and it is the first time ‘the twelve’ are mentioned in his gospel. We can take it that Peter and the twelve represent the Church, the community of believers. The reaction to Jesus’ words in John 6, and to the signs he has been giving, has been mixed and some have chosen not to walk with him anymore. So what about you, Jesus says, echoing his namesake Joshua from many centuries earlier, what are you going to do in response to what you have seen and what you have heard?
Peter speaks on behalf of the twelve and the rest of the disciples. Where is there to go? You have the words of eternal life and we believe – we have come to know – that you are the Holy One of God. Although many aspects of what is happening are new and mysterious to the disciples they have come to believe, and see no reason to place their faith elsewhere than in the One whose mysteries they are coming to understand.
Covenants, contracts and commitments are established and sustained through the exchange of words, through people saying ‘I do’, ‘I promise’, ‘I will’, ‘Let it be so’, ‘I give my word’, ‘I believe it is true’, and so on. The covenant of life and love established by God with His people had often been compared with marriage. Human marriage too is a covenant of life and love, becoming sacramental for our faith, not just in the sense that it can serve as an illustration or analogy for God’s dealings with us, but in the sense that it comes to instantiate those dealings, as a sacred union in which Christ’s love for the Church is not only pointed to but is realized.
One translation of today’s gospel reading begins ‘these are intolerable words’, referring to Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist. Coming as they do in this Sunday’s readings straight after that Ephesians passage, many people might nod their heads in agreement: ‘wives be subject to your husbands in all things’, ‘the husband is the head of his wife’ – these have come to be intolerable words because of the way in which they have been ‘cashed out’ socially, culturally and, it has to be said, religiously.
There are other words in that reading too, of course, that tend to be drowned out by the intolerable ones, in particular the words ‘as the Church submits to Christ’, or the words ‘as Christ loves the Church’, or the words ‘be subject to one another in obedience to Christ’ – serve each other in obedience to the one who has become the servant of all.
If we can remove the gender politics from our hearing of that reading (difficult as that is), if we can see that there is a rich mystery into which it invites us and from which it encourages us to understand our experiences of friendship, love and marriage – that all those things are understood most deeply when we understand them in relation to Christ and the Church – then we might find our way beyond words that seem intolerable, sayings that seem hard, into a glimpse of the kingdom of love which Christ has established. This is the kingdom where God makes himself the servant of his people to such an extent that, as Thomas Aquinas puts it in his famous Panis Angelicus, ‘manducat Dominum pauper, servus et humilis’: ‘the poor man, the servant, the humble one, eats his Lord’. If any words are intolerable, demanding a whole new mind in order to receive them, then surely such words are.
All sacramental life in the Church is nuptial because it is about the union of God and God’s human creatures, the sharing of life and love between God and human beings, and the sharing of life and love with each other by human beings in obedience to Christ. The life and love of the new and everlasting covenant is established in baptism, strengthened in confirmation, healed in reconciliation and anointing, celebrated in the eucharist, and made manifest to the world in the love of married people and in the ministry of priests. For now the moment of greatest intimacy we share is our communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Eucharistic Prayers we pray that ‘all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ may be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit’, and that ‘we who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ’.
So it is about a marriage, it is about poor ones who eat their Lord, it is about the glory of one who is exalted except that his exaltation is on a cross. The Word has indeed become flesh, and flesh to an extent that for some is incredible. We pray that we may continue to believe that here are to be found words of life, words of eternal life.