by Dan Loch
You are what you eat. Half of Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is about the Eucharist. And the message in today’s Gospel from Chapter 6 is “You are what you eat.” It overlaps with the reading when Jesus announced that his flesh is the “bread of life.”
Transubstantiation. Big word. Is it magic? A miracle? Cannibalism? I looked it up and the word “eat” that Jesus uses in this Gospel is very much like “munch” or “chew.” Jesus seems to be using language designed to shock his audience. The phrase “to eat my flesh and drink my blood” would be instant horror movie to a Jewish audience. Blood was forbidden. In Jewish tradition even to touch blood made a person ritually unclean. According to kosher rules, any meat to be eaten had to be drained of blood. The words used by Jesus are so over-the-top that they cannot possibly be taken literally.
So let’s look at this Gospel another way. The very first disciples knew Jesus in person. They were able to be with him, walk with him, talk with him, and hear his words in real time. But by the time John’s Gospel was written, around 95 AD, most of the community of believers would be second or third generation Christians who had no personal contact with the Jesus of Nazareth who returned to the Father some 60 years before. Where could these Christians – and us! – experience the living presence of Jesus? This Gospel points us to the presence of Christ in the celebration of the Christian Eucharist. The practice of sharing Eucharist as a memorial of Jesus was well-established in the Christian communities by the time this Gospel was written. Since the first century, Christians tied their celebration of Eucharist to the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. They celebrated Eucharist as a memorial of Jesus.
The Church has always been very careful in the language they use about how Jesus is present in the Eucharist. After the Consecration at Mass, we say, “When we eat this bread and drink this cup” and not “When we eat this flesh and drink this blood.” We are not cannibals. We are not eating Jesus’ liver, brain, and bones. When I was young and in Saints Cyril and Methodius parochial grade school, Sister Mary Armbuster spoke too explicitly to me about the
physicality of the Eucharist. It did not give me sensible thinking. I thought of the Eucharist as a magical act. As an adult Catholic, I believe that Christ is truly and personally present to me in the Eucharist. It is the glorified, risen Christ who is wholly and truly present under the form of bread and wine at the Eucharist. The “substance
” of bread and wine, the essence of their bread-ness and wine-ness, are changed to the body and blood of Christ, but the physical “form” of the bread and wine remains the same. How? That’s a question that misses the point of the gift.
Jesus tells us that he gives us himself “for the life of the world.” The Eucharist does not turn us into cannibals. It is meant to make us radicals, radically committed to all God’s people everywhere. When John’s Gospel has Jesus speaking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is drawing on a very old image of eating and drinking as representing “absorbing,” “comprehending,” or “understanding” the message of a speaker. Don’t we still say “Chew on this” to add emphasis to “Now hear this” or “Make sure you understand this”?
This takes us back to the First Reading from Proverbs. Wisdom in the First Reading is Lady Wisdom. (Ancient people found out, thousands of years before we did, that women are better communicators than men.) Her basic message is that if you “Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed, … that you may live” – meaning if you drink in and devour the wisdom that follows in the book of Proverbs, then you will have a rewarding and meaningful life.
In much the same way John’s long Chapter 6 “Bread of Life” passage makes a direct link between the practice of Eucharist and the teachings of Jesus. To “eat the flesh” of Jesus is to take Jesus into myself and accept everything that Jesus stands for, everything that Jesus teaches, everything that Jesus believes. It is an act of faith. It is my ascent to the gift. And it is empowering: “The one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”
But how it happens is not the question. Why we have this gift of the Eucharist is the question. The Eucharist is not a private devotion. It’s not something that only assures me of my own personal salvation. It is something that empowers me and all Christians to go out and transform the world with love and goodness for Christ’s sake. What I do away from the Eucharist is as important as what I celebrate at it. I’ve gotten past feeling guilty because I don’t rush out to feed all the world’s poor. Yet I can do my part as opportunities present themselves to me, if I watch for and am alert to them, and I can help other groups or people who do feed the poor. And this relates to the Second Reading where our wisdom lesson continued. Paul encourages the believers in Ephesus – and us – to live wisely, to “try to understand what is the will of the Lord.” Recognize the decisive point of the moment, and seize it. When asked to help, always say yes. Choose wisely.
When in the Mass does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? This is not a trick question. In the Western rite it is at the priest’s words of Consecration. It in the Eastern Rite it is during the whole Mass. Does it happen when you have faith
that it has?
The bottom line is this: When I receive the Eucharist, I not only receive the body of Christ; I become the body of Christ. The people who make up the Church in the world are indeed the body of Christ. In the words of St. Teresa, “Christ has no body now but yours!” You are what you eat.