by Rev. Daniel Maher
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus promised to give us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. To those of us who profess belief in Christ in the twentieth century, the thought that Jesus would become for us actual food and thereby enter into us to provide nourishment and refreshment to our soul is a wonderfully consoling thought. For those Christians who profess the faith of the Catholic Church, this thought is much more than mere consolation, it is the core belief of Catholics regarding their encounter with Christ in the action termed Holy Communion. If we project ourselves back to the time of Christ and envision ourselves as among those of a Jewish background who had been drawn by the dynamic preaching and inspiring example of Jesus of Nazareth, His promise would perhaps be seen in quite a different light. Upon Jesus' extraordinary revelation contained in this section of the gospel, there occurs a mass exodus of followers from His camp, seeming to indicate that those who were somewhat skeptical disciples of this self-proclaimed Messiah saw those words not so much as a consolation, but as instead more of a confirmation of sorts. The thought that one would proclaim His flesh to be food and His blood to be drink must have confirmed for many what some had no doubt always suspected, "Jesus of Nazareth is crazy!" According to Jewish custom, the blood of a person or animal was the life force of that being and therefore sacred and incapable of being shed or drunk by a believer. It is easy to understand, but no less regrettably felt, that the fledgling faith of so many of those original disciples was shaken by words uttered by the Savior himself. What a tragedy that the Lord who wanted to be so generous as to share His own life-force with them, as He did for us all through the outpouring of His blood from the cross, should be rejected as a sort of madman for possessing such a love for His chosen children! Yet today still we see around us continuing rejection of Christ's instructions that we are to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have life. This decision by most Christian denominations to interpret such a key section of the Bible in a figurative way seems curious in light of the fact that flocks of disciples walked away from Jesus at the time of its proclamation. One would think that if His message had somehow been taken too literally by the disturbed crowds, and in fact He intended it in only a symbolic way, Jesus would have corrected the misunderstanding among the departing throngs, rather than let them walk away from His saving message. The assumption that Jesus was speaking only figuratively also would seem a bit deflated by the language employed in this section of Scripture itself. The Greek language in which John's gospel was originally written is consistent in its use of words which translate into English as "eat" and "flesh," words which would seem rather strong if the eating intended was merely spiritual or if the flesh partaken of was meant in a spiritual sense too. Instead it seems more logical to assume that a real partaking of the flesh and blood of Christ is commended, an act of eating which produces marvelous spiritual effects. In the Mass, Catholics believe that simple bread and wine brought to the altar as a token offering to God are marvelously changed by God's power during the praying of the Mass into the body and blood of Christ for distribution to believers in the action of Holy Communion. God is so aflame with love and longing for His people that He will go to even seemingly crazed extremes to express that love. Holy Communion is one of those cases where God's love is so great as to make His zealous love for His people appear mad. What a different world it would be if we strove to return God's love with an equal passion!
(Fr. Daniel Maher is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and of St. Charles Seminary. He has served as associate pastor of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, VA and as spiritual director of the Fairfax Curia of the Legion of Mary.)
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