Deut. 8:2-3, 14-16, 1 Cor. 10:16-17, John 6:5-58
On the Gospel, We Become What We Eat
Augustinian nun Juliana of Liège had a vision in which a glistening full moon appeared to her. The moon was perfect but for some hollow dark spots which she was told represented the absence of a feast of the Eucharist. This led to the celebration of Corpus Christi which was introduced into the church calendar in 1264.
Why do we need a feast of the Eucharist? A feast like this affords us the opportunity to give God collective thanks for Christ’s abiding presence with us which is made visible in the Eucharist. It is also an opportunity for us to seek a better understanding of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ and to order our attitude to it accordingly, since the Eucharist is a sacrament of life which, if misused, could bring about the opposite effect. As St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All who eat and drink in an unworthy manner, without discerning the Lord’s body eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30).
In order to arrive at a better understanding of the Eucharist we need to ask why Jesus gave us this sacrament in the first place. A closer reading of today’s gospel or, better still, the whole of the Eucharistic discourse in John 6 from which it is taken provides useful answers. From the reading we find that there are two main reasons Jesus gave us this sacrament. (1) Jesus promised to be with us until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). In the Eucharist he provides a visible sign and an effective means of him being present to us and us being present to him. As Jesus himself said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (2) Jesus said that he came that we may have life and have it to the full (John 10:10). In the Eucharist he provides a visible means of communicating this life to us so that we can be fully alive both in this world and in the next. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:53-54).
The Jews that Jesus was addressing in John 6 had gathered to ask him for more bread. Jesus promised to give them the sacramental bread and blood instead. But in their worldly frame of mind they could not understand or appreciate the sacrament. They disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52). Jesus reaffirmed that “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (v. 55). They ended up distancing themselves from the Eucharist because the sacramental language makes no sense in a world of materialism.
The same problem that these early would-be followers of Jesus had is still with us today. If we approach the Eucharist with a materialistic mentality we fail to understand and so lose the benefits of such a wonderful gift of God’s love. The Eucharist is true food and drink but at the same time it is very different from every other food and drink. The great difference lies in these words of Christ which St Augustine heard in prayer, “You will not change me into yourself as you would food of your flesh; but you will be changed into me.” We transform ordinary food into our own bodies but the food of the Eucharist transforms us into the body of Christ. Ludwig Feuerbach’s statement that we become what we eat is never more true that in the Eucharistic experience.
Why then do many of us who receive the Eucharist not experience more of this radical transformation? Maybe this story will throw more light on the question. A team of Russians and Americans were on a common expedition. Among their cabin foodstuff was Russian black bread. It was tasty but hard on the teeth. It happened during a meal that an American bit into a piece and snapped a tooth. He threw the bread overboard and growled: “Lousy Communist bread.” The Russian countered: “Is not lousy communist bread. Is rotten capitalist tooth.” If we do not experience the transforming power of the Eucharist it is probably not on account of a lousy Eucharist but on account of our rotten faith. Let us today approach the Eucharist with a more lively faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and we shall experience therein God’s saving power and transforming love.
On the Epistle, The Importance of Holy Communion
What is the most precious gift that Jesus Christ gave to his church? I do not mean the gift of the Holy Spirit. I have in mind things that we can see and touch. Many people will say, “the Bible.” The Bible is indeed an invaluable gift of God, but Jesus did not write a Bible for the church nor did he commission his disciples to write one. The most precious gift that Jesus gave to his church is that which we celebrate today, the gift of his own body and blood in the form of bread and wine.
The short reading we have today from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is very important for Bible historians. This is because the words of Jesus in this passage are the earliest recorded words of Jesus that we have. We know that the words of Jesus are recorded in the gospels and other New Testament books. But Paul’s letters were written some twenty to fifty years before the gospels and theses other New Testaments books were written.
Paul begins by telling the people of Corinth that the tradition of celebrating the Lord’s supper is one that goes back to Jesus Christ himself. “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul did not personally receive this tradition from the Lord, since he was not one of the twelve apostles present at the Last Supper. He received the tradition from those who were Christians before him, after his conversion to the Christian faith. Now he is handing on to the Corinthians the same tradition that he himself received. The only difference is that whereas up till the time of Paul the tradition was passed on by word of mouth, Paul was the first to put it down in writing because he could not be there physically with the Corinthians.
What is the tradition that Paul received and is now passing on? It is this:
that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
The night he was betrayed was the last night that Jesus spent with his disciples before his passion and death. In olden days, people did not write their wills. They spoke their wills, usually as their last words before death. What do these words of 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 tell us when we read them as the last words, the will and testament of Jesus?
First, the will of Jesus does not say a word about what Jesus taught. Its focus is on what Jesus did. He gave his body to his followers as food and his blood as drink. Remember, this was taking place in the context of the Passover meal. So Jesus was presenting himself as their Passover lamb. The Israelites in Egypt had to eat the flesh of the Passover lamb to identify themselves as God’s own people. They marked their doorposts with its blood as a sign to keep away the angel of death. Every Israelite was supposed to participate in this ritual every year to renew their identity as God’s people who enjoy God’s special blessings and protection. Seen in this light, the Eucharist becomes for us the place where we come to renew ourselves as God’s new people in Christ.
Second, the will speaks of a “new covenant.” In the Old Testament the people of God came into being through a covenant. By speaking of a new covenant Jesus is saying that a new people of God has come into being. In the sacrifice that seals the covenant Jesus is both the officiating priest and the lamb of sacrifice. We are just the beneficiaries of a life-giving grace. That is why the name “Eucharist” (“thanksgiving”) is so appropriate. Jesus did it all for us. All we have to do is receive it and give thanks.
Finally, the will of Jesus invites us to the banquet. “Do this in remembrance of me … Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (verses 24-25). Folks, this is the last thing Jesus asked us to do before he died. He asked to keep doing it as often as possible until his return in glory (verse 26). Why then is it that many of us take the Eucharist so lightly? We seem to be so ready to skip attending Mass at the slightest excuse: “I just didn’t feel like going … We were on vacation … I don’t like Pastor John’s preaching, I seem to get more from the TV service.” But no amount of television programming can take the place of holy communion. Let us today ask our Lord Jesus to increase our faith in the sacrament of his body and blood which he gives us in the form of bread and wine.