Sunday, August 16, 2015
What Jesus Said
We've been following this Bread of Life discourse for several weeks, Jesus has given some really tough teachings, and now the quarreling has started. But quarreling, debate, and clarification are helpful for us to know what Jesus is talking about, so we want to let Jesus's words in the gospel teach and instruct us.
The last words of last week's gospel were John 6:51, "I am the living bread come 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." That's the height of the teaching, and it's so important that it's worth repeating. So this week's gospel passage repeated the same verse, John 6:51, before continuing on with the explanation that follows.
With these words, Jesus challenged his audience, and he challenges us too. They asked, quite fairly, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Clearly, they understood that he wasn't using an analogy or metaphor. No one gets upset over a metaphor. When Jesus said, "I am the vine and you are the branches," no one got upset and said, "How can this man claim to be a vine when he is clearly a human?" When Jesus said, "I am the gate" or, "I am the light of the world," no one got upset and protested. So why did they get upset here? Clearly they understood that he wasn't using a metaphor.
They understood him to be speaking literally because of the words he was using. So now we need to dive into Greek words just briefly. The idea of consuming and digesting, sort of eating, God's law was a common enough image for the Jews. They could handle that sort of image. And throughout the rest of the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus is using the word phago, a word that means to consume or to eat. But in this section alone, four times, Jesus uses the word trogo, which has a more literal sense of eating, the word trogo involves chewing and swallowing. By way of comparison, you can phago a good book, but you don't trogo it. Trogo is what the cow does to the grass, or what you do to the cow.
So here alone, with the Jews already upset at him, Jesus starts using language that is even less acceptable to them and even borders on heresy, because the Levitical law clearly condemns the eating of human flesh. There is no need to upset this crowd further, unless he absolutely means what he says. There is no need to antagonize them further, unless the bread that he gives really is his flesh for the life of the world, unless you really do have to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood in order to have life within you. If that really is the case, then he's going to have to upset people.
So now we need to do some catechesis. I recently read a survey (see it HERE) that found that 38% of Catholics don't believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 4% of those know Church teaching on this and still don't believe, but 34% of those Catholics surveyed don't even know what the Church teaches in this regard. So if you're among that 34%, listen up! In keeping with Jesus's own words here in the Bread of Life discourse and at the Last Supper, the Church has always taught the Eucharist really is Jesus, it is no mere symbol. We believe that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The Church has always taught this, in keeping with Jesus's own words, and it's what each of us has to believe in order to have eternal life.
And the reason Jesus did this, gave us his whole self in the Eucharist, was because he loves us. He wanted a way to stay with us, in every time and in every place that he knew the Church was going to be. He wanted a way to unite his followers in himself, and so he became a little piece of bread that each of us can freely choose to receive or to reject. He makes himself helpless out of love for us.
But what's the big deal? Why all this focus on whether the Eucharist is really Jesus or whether it's just a symbol or metaphor? After all, Jesus just said to receive it, he didn't tell us to worry too much about what it actually is, so why can't each of us just hold our own beliefs about what this is, and just get along? The problem with each of us holding our own beliefs about who and what Jesus is or how he is present to us is that rather than worshiping God as he really is, I take my own ideas about God and I worship that. I turn my ideas into an idol and I practice idolatry by worshiping them instead of the one true God.
Rather than each of us deciding for ourselves what the Eucharist is, trust Christ teaching us through his Scripture and through his Church that the Eucharist really is him. Let this belief transform your attitude about everything about our lives and everything we do at Mass. Recognize that this gift requires a response. That response, if I'm in a state of mortal sin, is to say I'm sorry by going to Confession. If I'm in a state of grace, that gift involves recognizing that here at Mass we really do meet God himself, and because we actually meet and touch God, we can never be too devoted, we can never be too attentive, we can never love and thank him enough. We receive him with love, and we make our whole lives a response of love.
Just as you would believe the marathoner who told you how to run a marathon or you would believe a mountain climber who told you how to climb a mountain, so you want to believe the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father when he tells you how to receive eternal life. He is telling you the truth because he loves you. He offers himself to you because he loves you. Receive the Eucharist with full confidence that it is what he says it is. Receive the Eucharist and receive eternal life.