We don’t think about it often when going on holidays at an airport or ferry terminal but, on passing passport control, one cannot go back on the same leg of the journey. One has crossed a border. If you have ever been stuck on an airplane – as I was going to the Holy Land – we were told only after boarding that we had a 4 hour wait on the plane on the tarmac on Cork airport and could not get back off. There was an air traffic control strike in France and we could not cross French air space – nor could we go back to the terminal. Either the strike was lifted or we had to fly around French air-space, I cannot remember, but we then proceeded on our 5 hour flight. Were we glad to get off that plane?! It is in a situation such as that one that you realise you have made a decision and there is no going back.
The place of the border – there is no going back, a place of decision, irreversible, a commitment, like that of a marriage, a solemn and sacred decision but also a free choice – not compelled – is an opportunity to declare one’s personal loving commitment, like a vocation. It is deeply personal and unique to each individual. One weighs up the possibilities, the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ and makes an irrevocable and personally free but also, binding, commitment – that one is giving and being taken at one’s word. It is a Yes to one thing and No to others. If a couple named John and Mary are getting married, John is saying to Mary ‘Yes’ and excluding all other women on the earth, likewise Mary is saying ‘Yes’ to John, and saying ‘No’ to all other men in earth. It is a serious undertaking for both of them but one taken after some deliberation. But in that free, loving, solemn, sacred, exclusive and indissoluble vow, there is the security of mutual fidelity. John is bound to Mary and Mary is bound to John – as long as they both shall live. We see St Paul appealing to the Ephesians that ‘a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two become one body. This mystery has many implications... for Christ and the Church.’
Certain life decisions, like marriage, or change of job, or moving house – the three most stressful situations in life, and events like a bereavement (more stress), are like that. You might later hanker back at times for the way things were but you also have to remind and reassure yourself why you are where you are now, and the decision or set of decisions (a process) that led you to where you are now. It is like saying ‘yes’ again, as couples do, who for example, make their renewal of marriage commitment.
So at the border, there is a decision for, and a decision against.
Today’s readings provide us with two of the most important decisions made in the Bible –one in the Old Testament and the other in the New Testament.
The first one takes place on the border of the Promised Land, and the risk and danger of compromise with paganism. The decision of Joshua and the Israelites - for a Hebrew mind – was one of remembrance and by implication, gratitude. For a Hebrew ‘forgetfulness’ was not an option – forgetfulness for a Jew is tantamount to denial.
The Gospel decision is also on the borderline – but also points to ‘life and death’ – spiritually. One has to choose for, or to believe in, the Eucharistic Christ, or against. It is the climax of all that we have read in the last 5 Sunday Gospel passages, all taken from John chapter 6. While others turn away we, like the disciples, are left standing.
This faith choice – to believe, is given even added dramatic urgency because of its location in each Reading today. The kind of ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’ decision is now put to each person, each believer, now and forever. Whatever your name is, God in the person of Joshua and in the Person of His Son Jesus (the same name actually) is asking you and me to choose.
Capernaum means ‘town of the border’. There was a border tax, and it was also crucially the way to Jerusalem – the place where the drama of the Passion, death and resurrection would be played out. It symbolises so much more, because it is the closing of one chapter and the beginning of the final chapter in Jesus’ life, but the place where we must follow, each in our own way. We cannot have any part with Him unless and until we come to realise that we must ‘pass over’ too.
There is a sad parting of ways. Many of the Jews, despite having seen the bread miracle, now follow no longer and fall away. This is a drama that has been played out in the lives of believers, even within families, through the Christian centuries. To lose a family member, because of a conversion or continued commitment to the Faith, or a friend because you no longer agree on something very fundamental, is extremely painful and one of life’s awful tragedies. Most of the time we agree to disagree with people who do not share our values or faith, but the consequences to unbelief can be so great that one cannot compromise one’s principles and we ‘leave them to God’ especially if they mock or are at best indifferent to our dearly held faith and Christian teachings when they decide to ‘walk no longer with us’.
‘To whom shall we go’ – this beautiful, humble prayer is also a statement that contains a flash of the characteristic stark realism of Peter when the chips are down. One can detect his shrug of the shoulders perhaps at the less palatable alternatives, and there is an element of discomfort, of living with uncertainty, but there is absolute trust in the risk being taken. Peter, like Joshua, has not forgotten all that the Lord has done. For Peter who has witnessed the Lord at work in his native Galilee, must now leave the security of his birthplace and the familiar to follow Jesus to Jerusalem with this new fledgling, one might even call it, ‘neo-Eucharistic’ faith.
What does this mean for us? Beside our life decisions of career, family, marriage, religious vocation, single life and so on, there is something going on much deeper here than any consumer choice or even life choice. It is the choice of faith, and today it is Eucharistic. One might even go so far as to say it is in modern Irish society that this applies to the conscious decision to continue one’s Sunday Mass commitment when so many turn away, through misunderstanding, the result of poor catechesis, a lack of lived out faith in the home, or the bad example of clergy and laity whose lives fail to reflect their faith or engender enthusiasm for it.
Like Joshua at Shechem and the Israelites following his example in their new-found freedom, one also has to frequently make decisions ‘for or against’ in speech, actions, thought and judgments, even something as simple as in TV-watching, what we download, discerning the books we read, as to whether we are caving in to the growing easy paganism around us or refusing to have any part in it. We have to daily decide between what is ultimately uplifting or degrading.
I often think when I see individuals and families return (or revert) to the practice of the faith that they have turned to the world and its values and found it wanting. The statement of Peter ‘To whom shall we go’ is lived out again and again by people who realise that material things and an abundance of them fail to satisfy. Emily O Reilly, the Ombudsman publicly described it as ‘Why many Irish people are tip-toeing back to Church’ in 2007 in a talk entitled ‘Are we forgetting something’. The Eucharist is food for the soul, for the spirit, literally ‘vital’ and the pledge of eternal life, the Promised Land of heaven.
Jesus now poses this question to you and to me today: ‘what about you, do you want to go away too?’