“My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (fourth in a series on John chapter 6)

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Aug. 15-16, 2009
Prov 9:1-6; Ps 34:2-7; Eph 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

In a book published in 1911, the Canadian/American author Ernest Thompson Seton recounted a story that had happened several decades before. Up in the Arctic during the winter a particular band of Algonquin Indians all starved to death—except for one woman and her baby. The woman took her baby and left the camp and set out to reach a place where they could find help. They made it as far as a lake, where she found some equipment, including a fishing line. And there were fish in the lake, but no bait; and they were starving. So the woman took a knife and cut a strip of flesh from her own thigh, and used her own flesh to bait the hook and catch the first fish. And they survived—and the woman always had a scar on her thigh from where she had cut out her own flesh.

It is a striking story, and we immediately grasp what a great love that this woman had for her baby, and what a stunning thing it would be to give your own flesh in order to feed someone you love.

Do we realize that something very like this, and even greater, will happen right here in about 20 minutes? We call it Holy Communion, and it happens at every Mass. Fr. David and I, and several extraordinary ministers, will distribute Holy Communion. And most of you will line up and come forward to receive—what? To do—what? What is Holy Communion all about? And what does it have to do with the life that you live the rest of the week?

When you think of Holy Communion, do you think of Jesus giving his own flesh to us as food to meet our desperate need, like in Seton’s story of the Algonquin woman? Or do you think of something else? Because there are a lot of different ideas about Holy Communion that get repeated in our culture, and among our separated Protestant brothers and sisters, and even among Catholics who go to Mass.

  • You may have heard some say that Holy Communion is about sharing and togetherness: all kinds of people eating and drinking from one table, with everyone united and no one excluded.
  • Or, you may have heard some say that Holy Communion is about remembering Jesus’ death on the cross for us some 2000 years ago and more fervently thanking him for this past gift.

Now, these aspects are both valuable. But the human unity will only be superficial and short-lived, if it is not forged by Christ himself. And it is not that Christ’s sacrifice is merely remembered, but that it is actually made present here and now.

No, the great problem comes when some people say that Holy Communion is nothing but sharing or remembering, grounded in a ritual sharing of bread and wine, as symbols. Some of you present today may even believe that. And if you are one of those people, perhaps you have been content believing that.

But perhaps there are others who have heard this taught and thought, “Well, what a waste of time.” Because you face real pain and loneliness and suffering and burdens in your own life and the lives of others around you; and you wonder, what use is a merely symbolic eating of bread and wine against real problems. Well, I offer to you a Catholic writer who expressed your thought even more pointedly. In 1955, the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter that she had just heard someone express the opinion that the host was “a symbol” and “a pretty good one.” And O’Connor writes: “I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’

Flannery O’Connor could use such strong language because she knew and would tell us that the Eucharist was much, much more than a symbol. And Jesus’ own language is even stronger and more graphic than hers. For in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus proclaims to the crowd, “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world… For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” The Algonquin woman in the wilderness who gave her flesh for her child, had nothing on him.

This is our fourth Sunday in the Gospel of John chapter 6. The first Sunday we heard about how Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of 5000 men, plus women and children, from five barley loaves. And then the Sundays since have been an ongoing conversation between Jesus and the crowd about how he is the living bread that came down from heaven. And his language has been kind of vague, as he spoke about people “coming” to him and “believing” in him. But that all changes abruptly in verse 51, which begins today’s reading. Suddenly his language is graphic and very concrete. Flesh, blood; eat, drink; true food, true drink.

He even changes which Greek verb he is using for “eating.” Earlier it was esthiô, a more general “to eat”; but now he says trôgô, which is “to eat” in a very physical word, as of animals, to chew. Do you know that our lectionary translation is trying not to hurt our feelings when it translates one phrase as “the one who feeds on me“? The Greek is actually much more direct: “the one who eats me.” And we would even be within our rights to translate it as: “the one who chews me.”

There is no mistaking what Jesus is saying here. The question is what the crowd asks: How? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus does not answer this question in this passage; and actually the crowd isn’t even talking to him anymore, at this point in the conversation, but are asking it of each other. But the Church has long understood and answered the crowd’s question. It is easy to state though hard to comprehend; and I want to quickly lay it out for you today. For those of you who already know this answer, perhaps hearing it again will help you in a conversation with someone else.

Right now, there in the back, we can see some containers, which will be brought to the altar in a little while. I could send an usher over there to check things out, to lift the lids and look inside; and we could ask him, “What is it?” And he would reply, “It’s bread and wine.” And then we could ask him—say, about just the bread—”What is it like? What are its characteristics?” And he could say, “Well, it’s small, and round, and white, and flat, and smooth; and it smells like bread, and it tastes like bread.” And I would say, “Hey! I didn’t ask you to eat it! Just look.” (Ushers can get over-eager sometimes and you have to rein them in!) But those are the answers. Right now, it is bread; and it has these characteristics that can be observed with our senses, or measured by scientific instruments.

Now when those gifts are brought forward, and I, a priest of Jesus Christ, take them and call down the Holy Spirit upon them and speak again Jesus’ words, including “This is my body; this is my blood,” a change will occur. Nothing we see will change: we will still see small, white, round, smooth, flat, and “smells like bread.” But what it is, changes. To the question, “What is it?” the answer is then no longer “It is bread” but “It is the Body of Christ.”

The Church calls this change “transubstantiation,” because, in the technical terminology of the philosophical system of Aristotle, as used by St. Thomas Aquinas, “substance” is the answer to the question, “What is it?” And so transubstantiation is a change of what it is—though the observable characteristics do not change. And that’s the miracle. As we look around our world, we can see examples of “what it is” changing, like when a living thing dies, and no longer is that living thing; or when food is eaten and assimilated, so that what was food now becomes part of what ate it; but in all these cases, the observable characteristics change drastically. But only in the Eucharist does “what it is” change, while the observable characteristics stay the same. Rather than changing the appearance into whatever the body and blood of Christ would normally look like—and probably making us too frightened to approach his glory—Christ allows the familiar appearances of bread and wine to remain as he draws us to himself.

It is now 8 weeks since I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ, and I can testify that I know that Christ is present in a different way than I knew before. After the consecration, when I hold the body of Christ in my hand, I look at him and he looks at me. It isn’t that my fingers tingle, because they don’t; or that I see a vision, because I don’t. But I know that he has made himself present there through my words as his priest, which he made me to be. And I know that he has done this with love even greater than that Algonquin woman, because he wants to feed you and me with that most precious, most intimate gift, his own flesh and blood as true food and true drink.

And what does that do for us?

  • Some of you came here today feeling empty and alone. Perhaps you wonder: Does Jesus love me? He loves you so much that he gives you his own flesh and blood. Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.
  • Some of you came here today weighed down by burdens and suffering. Perhaps you ask: Where can I find strength and peace to bear all of this? Jesus gives you his strength and he feeds you with his body and blood. Jesus said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.
  • Some of you came here today concerned about those around you, about what they suffer and even the sin that you binding them. Perhaps you ask: Do I have anything that I can give to help them? Jesus gives you grace to help others, as he feeds you with his body and blood. Jesus said, “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.

It is an amazing gift that Jesus offers to us; and yet we will see next week, when we conclude our time in John chapter 6, that some of his own disciples rejected his gift because they found this teaching so hard: they left him and stopped following him.

But for today our invitation is to truly receive him. It is such a temptation to come to Holy Communion thoughtlessly, without thinking about who we are receiving and really taking that grace in. Even in the first century, St. Paul had to warn the Corinthians [11:29] about eating and drinking without discerning the body. But it is the body and blood of Christ that we receive! And what a shame if this precious gift should be placed in our hands or on our tongue and yet we do not truly receive him, but rather leave his gift like an unopened present, never unwrapped, but just placed up on a shelf in the close of our heart. No, let us take care to recognize him and welcome him with joy! Let us take advantage of those precious minutes after we return to our pew, and even after Mass, to thank our Lord, and to ask him for his love, his peace, his strength, and his grace in our lives this week.

Jesus said: “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

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Published in: on August 16, 2009 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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