(Schedule Note: This Wednesday, August 15, is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is a Holy Day of Obligation. Mass times at St. Mary's in Sylva are 9:00am and 6:00pm that day. This coming Sunday, August 19, starts our Fall Semester schedule at the Catholic Student Center on campus; we will have Mass on campus at 7:30pm. See you there!)
We continue this week with our journey through the sixth chapter of John's Gospel, where Jesus is introducing us to the teachings of the Eucharist. Last week we examined the parallel between the manna, the bread from heaven which God gave to the Israelites in the desert, and the Eucharistic bread. In today's Gospel, Jesus continues to draw out this parallel even more clearly.
"Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 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."
There is so much richness packed into these few sentences, it is worth the time to unpack them. The manna given to the ancient Israelites sustained their lives in the desert, but eventually they all did die -- everyone does. But Jesus is telling us that there is to be a new "bread from heaven" which we can eat from so that we never die. And then -- radically -- he says that He Himself is that bread; and lest we are tempted to take him metaphorically, he says quite explicitly that the bread he's talking about is his very flesh.
We Christians today have the benefit of 2000 years of Church teaching about the Eucharist. We can read these words and know the rest of the story -- we know about Jesus' Passion and Resurrection, we know about Holy Thursday and the Last Supper, where Christ took the bread, blessed it, and said, "This is my body." We see this made real for us every Sunday in the Mass, when our priests, in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, speak those same words and make Christ's sacrifice truly present for us in the Eucharist. So that when we consume what looks and tastes like a simple wafer of unleavened bread, we know through faith that we are actually consuming the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, the same flesh offered for us on the cross for the remission of our sins. We cannot know these things scientifically, but we believe through our faith in the Lord who spoke these words. "I am the bread that came down from heaven."
Our tendency is to allow this belief to become domesticated. We have tamed the Eucharist, made it something we do by habit and routine, without really thinking about it. When we line up to receive Communion in our parishes, we look more like people waiting to board a bus than people preparing to receive the Maker of the Universe into our bodies. This is a tragedy, because if there is any aspect of our Christian faith which is not tame, this is it! It would be good for us to recapture some of the awe and mystery, and even incredulity, of those who first heard this teaching of our Lord. In today's account, they cannot believe that Jesus "came down from heaven." Who does this guy think he is? they say, We know his mom and dad, he's from our neighborhood!
Jesus simply tells them to stop their murmuring. Then he explains; no one can come to him unless the Father sends them. All those sent by the Father will come to Jesus, where they "shall all be taught by God." Jesus' teaching that his own flesh is to be heavenly food for us is simply too much to believe. Too much, that is, unless we have the gift of faith. We accept and believe because we have been drawn to the teachings of Christ by the Father. We accept and believe not because of what is taught, but because of who is teaching.
Because we believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, is God incarnate, we believe that he meant what he said and has the power to make it happen. And so when we consume the Eucharist into our bodies, we know that consume Christ himself. And what does this mean for us, that we have Christ within us? St. Paul tells us in today's second reading (Eph 4:30-5:2), that, "All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice." For these things, "grieve the Holy Spirit." When we are united bodily with our Lord, we involve the Lord with everything we do in our bodies. And so if we act in the way that St. Paul describes, we truly do "grieve the Spirit."
Instead we are to "be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving." We are to "live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God." Christ is our model. Christ is our example. Christ is our food. He is both what we aim to reach and what sustains us on the journey. This is why the Second Vatican Council calls the Eucharist both the "source and summit of our faith." It is where our faith begins, and if we remain faithful, also where it ultimately ends, when we can be united with our Eucharistic Lord even more fully in heaven.