By Father Michael Comer.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life within you.” Jesus spoke these words to a group of his disciples — those who had already begun to follow him, and who had at least the beginnings of faith in him. But these words shocked them to the core. The very idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus was totally repulsive to them. In fact, they were, as Jews, forbidden to have any contact with blood at all. It made them ritually unclean. And so, they turned away from him. We are told that they returned to their former ways of life. They abandoned him, and refused to have any more to do with him. This was just too much.
We read this account in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John — what is called the Bread of Life discourse. It is a dialogue between Jesus and his followers, who have experienced the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fishes, and want him to continue to provide for their physical sustenance. Jesus explains that they have missed the point. God wishes to feed them with bread from heaven that will give them eternal life. “Give us this bread always,” they respond.
Jesus then begins to explain to them that he himself is the Bread from Heaven. He is the only one who can satisfy the deepest hungers of the human heart. Only he can give them eternal life. If they eat this bread they will never be hungry again. They will never thirst again. They are shocked, because they have never heard this kind of talk from a rabbi before. Each of them taught about God and how God would satisfy their deepest longings. But Jesus is saying that he himself will fulfill their deepest longings. This is scandalous at best, and blatant heresy at worst. Who does he think he is? Who, indeed!
At this point in the discourse, Jesus changes the metaphors. He no longer speaks of bread from heaven, but of his own flesh and blood. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” This is even more shocking. “How can he give us his flesh to eat? What can this possibly mean?” And now Jesus becomes even more shocking in his statements.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will have no life in you.” Now he is not only talking about eating his flesh, but drinking his blood. How repulsive! How disgusting! How offensive! Jesus keeps pushing the issue, not softening his words in any way. In fact, he doubles down, beginning to use a new word for “eat”, which is typically used to refer to a dog gnawing on a bone. “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh (whoever gnaws on my flesh like a dog gnawing on a bone) and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”
It is at this moment that the line had been crossed. Jesus had gone too far. It is one thing to say that God will provide for his children. It is something else for Jesus to identify himself with God and tell them that he would provide for them. If Jesus had said that God had sent him to provide for his people that would have been somewhat acceptable. But when Jesus essentially made himself equal to God that was too much. And when he said that we must eat his body and drink his blood, that was really too much. But now, he has become even more graphic, even more literal, telling us that we must actually gnaw or chew on his flesh and drink his blood — this is a bridge too far.
I am certain that Jesus must have felt a great sadness as he watched these followers of his turn away, and reject not only this teaching but also him. He loved them. He had come in order to redeem them, and to be the food that would satisfy them, and make them into the children of God. It must have broken his heart. Couldn’t he have tried a little harder to hold on to them, and not let them leave? Couldn’t he have softened his teaching just a little bit, so that it would have been less shocking and upsetting to them? But he didn’t. He let them walk away. If they could not accept this teaching, they could not be his disciples. This was that important.
We then see Jesus look with sadness to the Twelve. His words are filled with hurt and disappointment and fear. “Are you going to leave me, too?” My guess is that the Apostles were just as shocked and confused by this teaching as were those in the crowd. They too were repulsed and repelled by the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. They were shaken to the core. And yet Peter responds, for all of them, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God.” In other words, “We don’t get this either. It makes no sense to us. But we know and believe in you, and so we are staying. We trust you.”
Some studies state that on any given Sunday, only about 20 percent of those who identify as Catholic attend Mass. And only about half attend with any regularity at all. There are many reasons for this, but I believe that one of the main reasons is that in their heart, many Catholics do not believe what Jesus tells us in this Bread of Life discourse. “I am the Bread that has come down from heaven. … I am the Bread of Life. … Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. If you eat this bread, you will live forever. … This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. … Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life within you. … My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
If we truly believe the words of Jesus and what he is promising to those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, how could we possibly absent ourselves from the Mass?
Let us pray for a rediscovery, by the Catholic people, of the remarkable gift of the Eucharist, the Bread from Heaven, and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ himself.
Father Michael Comer is the pastor of Mother of God Parish, Covington.