Occasion: Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Gospel reading, John 6:51-58.
Jesus said to the Jewish crowds:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
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,
and I will raise him on the last day.
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.
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.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Standout Words and Phrases
living bread, true food, true drink, the living Father, life
Do you want to live? Then you must eat. This law applies to every living being, from the humblest bacterium to the grandest whale.
All your creatures look to you
to give them food in due season.
You give it, they gather it up;
you open your hand, they have their fill.
— Psalm 104
For human beings things are a little different. Not only do our bodies need material food, our souls also need spiritual food, lest they wither and die. For this, our Lord has provided a most unusual food: himself. There are many ways to receive this food; one of them is through faith. But our Lord also provides a more direct way.
The Christian life is an exodus from a life of spiritual slavery and deceptive material abundance to a promised land of freedom and spiritual superabundance. The echo of the Old Testament is important here, and the early Christians spoke of it frequently. Just as the Hebrews passed out of Pharoah’s bondage through the waters of the Red Sea, we pass out of sin’s bondage through the waters of baptism. Similarly, just as the Hebrews were not then immediately in the promised land, we are not in heaven just yet. Just as the Hebrews needed bodily food for their journey through the desert, and subsisted for forty years on manna, the bread from heaven, so do we Christians need spiritual food to pass through the desert of this life, and we subsist on bread provided from heaven.
He rained down manna to eat,
and gave them bread from heaven.
Man ate the bread of angels.
— Psalm 78
Small wonder the early Christians saw these parallels: our Lord Himself alludes to them in today’s gospel, when saying that he would give himself as food and drink.
It may be tempting to dismiss Jesus’ words here as exaggeration or mere allegory. Certainly, no less a Catholic authority than St. Thomas Aquinas points out that in the first part of the discourse, our Lord uses the term “bread from heaven” to refer primarily to himself and to faith in him (e.g., paragraph 959 here). Yet the same St. Thomas is notorious for coining the term “transubstantiation” to explain the mystery of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As with so many things, it is not a question of either/or but of both/and.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet;
my mouth shall praise you with joy.
— Psalm 63
Nor does our Lord back off, even though many of his followers left him. The link between faith and sacrament is made explicit when St. John links this teaching to Judas’ betrayal. Here, the evangelist notes:
“There are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him.
— John 6:64
He then returns to this point at the Last Supper:
After [Judas] took the morsel, Satan entered him. So Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”
— John 13:27
Not for nothing does the Church, in line with the advice of St. Paul and the testimony of the early Christians, withhold the Eucharist from unbelievers. But let’s avoid wandering too far off the path, and return to the subject of the celebration, the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Those familiar with the original Greek of the Gospel of John will point out how Jesus’ words take a vivid turn in verses 54-58 when speaking of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Likewise, the unambiguous testimony of early Christians, those who were dying as martyrs in Roman persecutions, is that in the Eucharist the bread and wine turn into the very body and blood of Jesus.
[The Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.
— St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnans
[N]ot as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.
— St. Justin Martyr, First Apology (Explanation)
[St.] Paul is not speaking of some spiritual and incorporeal kind of man, for spirits do not have flesh and bones. He is speaking of a real human body composed of flesh, sinews and bones, nourished by the chalice of Christ’s blood and receiving growth from the bread which is his body.
— St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies
When the Romans accused the early Christians of cannibalism, they pointed out that cannibalism occurs when we treat a man’s body and blood as common food and drink: the cannibal eats to nourish his body, to turn the other person into himself. Indeed, there is the well-known story of the cannibals who ate a missionary because they wanted to acquire his powers.
Early Christians explained that the Eucharist is not “common food and drink,” but rather spiritual food and drink. We do not receive the Eucharist to nourish our bodies, or to appropriate Christ’s abilities for ourselves. Rather, we receive the Eucharist to nourish our souls, and to be joined to the glorified body of Christ, to appropriate our abilities for him. It is the very opposite of cannibalism: “Become what you receive,” as St. Augustine would say some time later.
Those who choose other gods increase their sorrows.
Never will I offer their offerings of blood;
never will I take their name upon my lips.
You, O Lord, are my portion and cup;
you yourself are my prize.
The lot marked out for me is my delight;
welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me!
— Psalm 16
We can go beyond the testimony of the early Christians, and look at the teaching of the ancient churches that are now separated from us: even if they demur from the term “transubstantiation,” do they also believe that in receiving the Eucharist, they receive the Body and Blood of Christ? Here are a few, off the top of my head, that date to the earliest centuries (no later than 3rd or 4th) and in some cases schism had developed before the Middle Ages were under way:
- Armenian Orthodox? check
- Assyrian Church of the East? check
- Coptic Orthodox? check
- Eastern Orthodox? check
- Ethiopian Orthodox? check
While our churches do not agree on everything, it seems miraculous that after two millennia we maintain the same essential doctrine on the Eucharist.
Why would Christ give us this sacrament? A Christian’s destiny is not just to enter heaven, not just to become perfect, but to share in the divine nature. Grace is a sharing of God’s divine nature; it helps us grow in the Body of Christ.
There are many ways to receive grace; prayer, for instance, and studying the Bible are both instruments of grace. Sacraments are instruments of grace associated with a visible sign and commanded in some way by Christ. Baptism, for instance, is a sacrament with the sign of bathing in water; Christ commands his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (One name, three persons: a hint of the Trinity.) Anyone can baptize another; in the opinion of St. Thomas, even an atheist could baptize validly, assuming he had the right intent!
The Eucharist is another sacrament; our Lord commands us to partake in it at the same time that he made explicit its nature:
[H]e took a cup, gave thanks, and said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I tell you [that] from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.”
— Luke 22:17-19
St. Paul also affirms the Eucharist as a command he received from the Lord in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
One way to understand the working of this mystery is to remember our mystical union with Christ. We Christians are united in the Body of Christ. Just as a human body can break down its own fat and circulate the energy through its blood to nourish its members, and in receiving its own body and blood the members do not consume it, so does Christ use his own body and blood to nourish the members of his body. Just as a vine uses its own sap to nourish and grow its branches, even those branches grafted onto it, so does the vine of Christ use the sap of his own flesh and blood to nourish the branches that constitute his visible body. The essential matter is the grace of partaking of the divine nature; this is what we need to live, and is available in many ways. The Church has never so much as taught that an unbaptized person cannot attain heaven, let alone that a noncommunicant cannot attain heaven; indeed, the early Church applied a notion of “baptism by desire” to catechumens who were martyred. The important thing is the grace of the sacrament, not the sacrament itself.
Yet we have this great gift, this marvelous gift from our Lord, which nourishes love for him and shows us how truly and intimately joined we are. Let us prepare ourselves piously to share in in this great sacrament, repenting of our sins and embracing a short fast so as to help focus our minds on the gift that is to come, and rejoice in the superabundance of our God, who loves us so much as to embrace us with such complete and unrestrained affection!
O that my people would heed me,
that Israel would walk in my ways! …
Israel I would feed with finest wheat
and fill them with honey from the rock.
— Psalm 81