The Body and Blood of Christ – Year A
Today’s solemnity was instituted in 1264 to specifically honour the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Pope Urban IV commissioned the Dominican friar, St Thomas Aquinas, to compose a Mass and an Office to commemorate this feast.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3; 14-16 The first of today’s readings provides a background, not just for this celebration but for the spirituality of Jesus that gave rise to the whole culture of Eucharist in Christianity. The Deuteronomist describes Moses reminding his people that they were guided by God in the waterless desert and they were fed by the manna that kept them alive. The name probably derives from the question in Hebrew, ‘What is it?’ (manu). It is mentioned in Numbers 11:7 as being like coriander seed that the Israelites ground and baked into cakes. Because it seemed to fall with the night time dew and was gathered in the morning, the Israelites referred to the manna as bread from heaven.
The Responsorial Psalm picks up the metaphor of the bread from heaven, which brings prosperity to the people and the land. Divine care is complete when there is peace and the harvests are rich.
But the important message here is that the thing that promotes life and good fortune is God’s word.
So, what is God’s word? In ancient Israel it was the covenant tradition by which God would look after Israel, and the people, in turn, would respond to their relationship with God by living in accordance with divine instructions. This means a life of goodness and justice. The finest wheat that nourishes the people is the word that comes from the mouth of God. The bread from heaven, then, is the word, the instruction, the guide for living that comes from God.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17 In his short passage Paul draws a parallel from the experience of the Israelites in the desert who were provided with food and drink by God. He is warning the Corinthians against the dangers of idolatry and makes the point that even though the Israelites drank the same spiritual drink and ate the same spiritual food they were still vulnerable to temptation. Their unity as a people of God did not stop them from forgetting their covenant relationship with God and drifting into the worship of other deities.
Paul then reminds the Corinthian community that even though they take part in the Lord’s Supper they still have to keep watch to avoid idolatry. In the verses after today’s reading Paul unambiguously writes, ‘You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.’ In other words, you cannot honour Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic supper and then go off and take part in a banquet to pay homage to Jupiter or Athena or some other deity. The two are incompatible.
Paul then uses the single loaf of the Lord’s Supper as a symbol of the unity of the community. Because we all share in the one loaf of the Eucharist, we are one body.
The united community is the body of Christ.
Today’s gospel reading is an extract from the words of Jesus spoken in the synagogue at Capernaum. This is often referred to as the Bread of Life Discourse. Jesus begins with a declaration that he is the living bread from heaven. Immediately, this would ring a bell with his listeners as an allusion to the manna. But a problem arises when he goes on to say that the bread he is offering is his flesh for the life of the world. At this point we recognise the familiar Johannine literary technique whereby Jesus utters a paradox that is not understood by the listener.
Remember Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus by night to ask him about his teaching, and Jesus told him that the kingdom of God is only open to those who are born again. Nicodemus was confused by Jesus’ metaphorical language and interpreted him literally when he asked Jesus how a person could go back into their mother’s womb and be born again. Jesus then took the opportunity to explain the metaphor. The message from the John writer is:
Jesus is a poet – don’t take him literally. Look more deeply into what he is saying to find the truth.
Similarly, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well takes Jesus literally when he says he can give her living water, i.e., the water of life. She replies, ‘Sir you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?’ She then realises from the following conversation that Jesus is a prophet and that he is referring to spiritual water that quenches the human longing for a guide to quality life.
Both of these situations reinforce the Johannine writer’s overriding metaphor that Jesus is the Word of God come from heaven. The very first words of the gospel point to Jesus as the human form of God’s word, that is, he is the embodiment of God’s revelation to us.
The rest of John’s gospel then goes on to present examples of how Jesus is the Word, the food from heaven, the bread of life showing us how to be part of the reign of God.
Jesus is the bread from heaven, our spiritual food and drink At this point in the discourse the familiar Johannine paradox again emerges. Jesus says the food he is offering is his flesh. Having thrown this spanner into the works he appears to complicate things further by saying that there can be no life in people who do not eat his flesh and drink his blood. To a Jewish person this would be totally unthinkable. Consuming blood is strictly prohibited in Leviticus 17:10-12. As for eating human flesh – preposterous! The question for us then is, ‘What is he getting at. What is the deeper truth here?’
Jesus is clearly drawing on the spiritual tradition of his Jewish culture. The passages from Isaiah 55 depicts God speaking to Israel and urging the people to eat the rich food of the word of God. The verse before this one shows God inviting people to come to the water and find the best of spiritual food and drink without spending any money.
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
“Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits........
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame, and those who work with me will not sin.”
The passage from Sirach contains words from Wisdom who invites people to come and partake of her food and drink. Jesus, of course, goes a step further than Wisdom saying that those who partake of his food and drink will never hunger or thirst again.
Aware of this rich spiritual heritage contained in the Hebrew Scriptures we can appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ confronting language of consuming his flesh and blood.
In Hebrew thought, flesh and blood is a term that indicates the whole person. So how do we digest the whole person of Jesus, the Word of God? We take on board everything he said and did. We make his word the guiding principle of our lives.
In the verses following today’s reading Jesus will ask his friends if they will also go away, like those who do not stay to figure out what Jesus meant. Peter replies on behalf of the others, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ Peter does not say, ‘We will eat your flesh and drink your blood.’ He understands the depth of what Jesus means. It’s about Jesus the word of life.
There is another gem in the book of Ezekiel where the prophet has a vision of what seems to resemble the divine figure of God who hands him a scroll and tells him to eat it. Reluctantly Ezekiel eats the scroll and, to his surprise, finds it is sweet in his mouth. Then God says, ‘...go out to the House of Israel and repeat my very words to them.’ The metaphor is clear enough. The prophet digests the word of God, lives it out and spreads it to others.
The same applies here.
There is more to our commitment to Jesus Christ than receiving him in Communion at Mass. Eucharist is a vitally important part of the piece, but it is not the whole story. Digesting the word and the whole person of Jesus, and living accordingly, is what constitutes the heart and soul of the Christian life.
How do I come to know and digest the word of God and thereby conform my life to the Christ of the Eucharist?
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:8
Two well-heeled ladies were sitting together in first class on an intercity flight. After an hour of boredom, they struck up a conversation. The first lady began, ‘I just had a delightful email from my son the surgeon. Do you have children?’
‘My only son lives in Melbourne.’
‘And what does he do?’
‘He, too, has chosen to pursue the medical profession.’
‘Lovely. I suppose he’s a GP?’
‘No. He’s a malpractice lawyer.’