August 19; 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

20th OTThe Bread that I shall give is my Flesh

One of the greatest challenges to a preacher is to sustain and string together a series of homilies based on the various excerpts taken from Chapter 6 of the Fourth Gospel, which we have been consecutively hearing for the past few weeks. At first glance, there seems to be repetition and nothing new to add, which of course, creates a predicament for us preachers, who have to struggle with looking for some novel theme to expand and expound. Sometimes it really feels as if we are looking for a needle in a haystack. But any careful and prayerful reading of the text would soon reveal that the passage is anything but repetitive. There is, of course, the recurring themes, of the Bread of Life, but there is also progression and development, with each passage taking us deeper into the mystery of this sacramental language; and thus, each week we are provided with another layer of understanding the mystery of the Eucharist.

At the beginning of the discourse on the Bread of Life in verse 30, the Jews had asked our Lord what sign He could perform so that they might believe in Him. As a challenge, they noted that “our ancestors ate manna in the desert.” Could Jesus top that? He told them the real bread from heaven comes from the Father. “Give us this bread always,” they responded just like the Samaritan woman at the well when our Lord told her of the living water that will forever quench her thirst. Here, our Lord replies with another “I am” statement, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” At this point the Jews understood Him to be speaking metaphorically.

But in today’s passage, our Lord first repeated what He said, then went on to expand it by adding an additional element: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my FLESH, for the life of the world.” The Jews then asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” His listeners were stupefied because now they understood Jesus literally and indeed correctly. You can’t get more literal than this – “the bread that I shall give is my flesh.” He again repeated His words, but with even greater emphasis, and introduced the statement about drinking His blood: “I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I will live in him.” Twelve times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He said they would have “to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” No wonder, many of His own disciples left Him. But He did not correct these protesters nor did He choose to re-eedit His words.

First, was our Lord speaking metaphorically when He told His disciples that His flesh was real food and that they would need to eat if they wish to possess eternal life? The issue plaguing the Lord’s disciples two thousand years ago, continues to be a stumbling block for Protestants to accept our Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. They say that in John 6 our Lord was not talking about physical food and drink, but about spiritual food and drink. They claim that when the Lord spoke of Himself as the Bread of Life, He was only speaking metaphorically. Thus, coming to Him is bread, having faith in Him is drink. Thus, eating His flesh and blood was purely figurative and merely means believing in Christ.

But there is a problem with that interpretation. The phrase, “to eat the flesh and drink the blood,” when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating Him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense. The other “I am” statements of the Lord, like “I am the door” and “I am the vine” make sense as metaphors because Christ is like a door—we go to heaven through Him—and He is also like a vine—we get our spiritual sap through him. But Christ takes John 6:35 far beyond symbolism by saying, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (John 6:55). He continues: “As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me” (John 6:57). The Greek word used for “eats (trogon) is graphically blunt and has the sense of “chewing” or “gnawing.” This is not the language of metaphor.

When trying to explain the Eucharist to the Roman Emperor around 155AD, St. Justin did not mince his words: "For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him . . . is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.” St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was eaten by the beasts in Rome around 107 A.D., also wrote: “The Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ” (To Smyrna 7:1). And then St Cyril of Jerusalem, in a catechetical lecture presented in the mid-300s, said, “Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that, for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm.” (Mystagogic 4:22:9).

What is obviously so “hard” about this saying is that it suggests cannibalism. If our Lord’s words are not meant to be figurative or symbolic, would this suggest that we are cannibals? The disciples were right to be scandalised and horrified by the prospect of cannibalism but they were wrong to identify it with what they were hearing. In fact, one charge the pagan Romans lodged against the Christians was cannibalism. Why? You guessed it. They heard that this sect regularly met to eat human flesh and drink human blood. Did the early Christians say: “wait a minute, it's only a symbol!”? Not at all.

While Holy Communion does involve eating human flesh and blood, it is not true that it is cannibalistic. How so? The Eucharist is life. Cannibals eat what is dead. The Christ whom we consume is alive. He is the Risen Lord, He is Life itself. Our reception of the Eucharist doesn’t destroy or change that in any way. Being alive, His body is still united with His soul. And because Jesus Christ is true God and true man, His divinity and humanity are inseparable. In partaking of the human aspects of Christ (His body, blood and soul), we also partake of His divine nature. Christ’s risen body is not a resuscitated corpse like that of Lazarus, but an utterly transformed “spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44). Therefore, when a Catholic receives the Eucharist, he is receiving not just flesh but glorified flesh, a resurrected and transfigured “super body” that foreshadows the new reality of a new Heaven and a new earth. Cannibalistic practices don’t do that. Putting all these elements together, we arrive at the Catholic formula: “The Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We all consume our Lord when we receive Him in Holy Communion but it is also true that the Eucharist consumes us. When you eat food, it becomes a part of you. With the Eucharist, however, the opposite happens. We become a part of it, that is, in Holy Communion, we are made a part of the mystical body of Christ. In our Lord’s words, those who eat His flesh and drink His blood abide in Him (Jn. 6.40). The other Sacraments give us grace, the Holy Eucharist gives us not only grace but the Author of all grace, Jesus, God and Man. It is the center of all else the Church has and does.