“My flesh for the life of the world”

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20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Aug. 19, 2012
Prov 9:1-6; Ps 34; Eph 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

100 years ago, the author Ernest Thompson Seton published a book that included a story from a few decades earlier. Up in the Arctic, one winter a group of Algonquin Indians all starved to death—except for one woman and her baby. She took her baby 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. 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 that hook and catch the first fish. And they survived—and ever after the woman always had a scar on her thigh from where she had cut out her own flesh.

This is a striking story. And don’t we instantly understand just how great a love that woman had for her baby? And how remarkable it would be to give your own flesh to feed someone you love? Or to be the recipient of that kind of love?

Today is our fourth Sunday in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. And you remember

  • that the chapter began with Christ’s miraculous feeding of the 5000;
  • and when the crowd came looking for him the next day to get more food, he promised them instead food that would give eternal life;
  • and he revealed that he himself was that bread, the Bread of Life, come down from heaven.

And that was amazing enough in itself. Because he spoke of coming to him, and believing in him, and how we would never hunger and never thirst and have eternal life. And if that were all, that would be an amazing, life-changing message.

But that’s not all. Because today we hear him go further—as he says, “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” And he speaks quite explicitly of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And we realize that he has taken us somewhere incredible and wondrous—if it’s not just a little bit disgusting.

Naturally the Jewish leaders listening ask the obvious question: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Is he going to take a knife and cut out a chunk and hand it to us, like that Algonquin woman? It was a very good question. And the answer is that, no, he was going to institute the Eucharist on Holy Thursday; and from then until the end of the age, through the ministerial priesthood that he also instituted, upon the altar, he would transform ordinary bread and wine into something extraordinary: into himself (body and blood, soul and divinity), truly present, though still under the appearances of bread and wine.

Every day we eat food that comes from plants or from animals, and, through digestion, we change them into ourselves. Of course, in that process, their appearance and other qualities completely change. In the Eucharist, in a slightly similar way, Christ changes bread and wine into himself; except without any change to their appearance; and not through eating them himself, but through making them into himself, so that we can feed on him, as he said.

That is how this man can give us his flesh to eat. Not in its proper appearance, which is so glorious and majestic that we would be too awestruck to even approach; but under this humble, familiar disguise of ordinary bread and wine. For this profound gift of himself bespeaks such love, such a passionate desire to be unite himself to us, to you; and he humbles himself still further as he softly appeals to your soul.

This is what so often draws those from other Christian traditions to become Catholic—including St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and other converts who became saints. And this was the No. 1 reason for me as well, when I was 26 and a Catholic friend told me about how she knew that our Lord Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist; and I saw how this shaped how she attended Mass and received Holy Communion, and how she was often pray in front of the Tabernacle and urge me to do so as well, knowing that he, he himself, was present there. And I had been searching for the truth and a true, living connection to Christ for many years; and I knew that, if this could be true, if Christ really would give himself to me in that way, then I couldn’t be anywhere else. I had to receive that gift!

And it is true! As our Lord tells us: “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.”

What an extraordinary gift! What love! And yet, how easy it is to forget—to be fooled by that humble disguise of bread and wine and to become blinded and numbed to who it is that we receive! Even in the first century, St. Paul had to warn the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:29) about eating and drinking without discerning the body. But we always have the chance to start over, to prepare a proper place to receive our Lord:

  • by going regularly to sacramental confession to clean out our heart into which we welcome him;
  • by coming early to Mass and taking a few moments to recollect and focus our minds;
  • by lingering quietly after Mass to savor his presence within us and to thank him for his great gift.

And to give witness to ourselves and others, especially children and grandchildren, and non-Catholic friends, of the truth of his presence that we know:

  • by genuflecting to him, truly present in the Tabernacle;
  • by maintaining a reverent silence, speaking to him and listening to him in our hearts, and allowing others to do so;
  • and by coming often to this parish or others during the week, to make a visit, and to spend time in adoration of him, our Eucharistic Lord.

What love he shows to us, holding nothing back: offering to us all that he is, even his own flesh and blood, so that he may be one with us, in true Communion.

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

(St. Thomas Aquinas, Adore te devote, tr. Gerard Manley Hopkins)

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