You are Who you eat: "Let Christ be eaten..."
A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for August 16, 2015, the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time | Carl E. Olson
• Prv 9:1-6
• Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
• Eph 5:15-20
• Jn 6:51-58
“You are,” my mother—like most other mothers—used to tell me, “what you eat,”
“You are Who you eat,” says my Mother, the Church, as she has for two thousand years.
The Eucharist, wrote Ignatius of Antioch on his way to martyrdom, “is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death …” The person “who receives the flesh of our Savior Christ and drinks his precious blood,” wrote Cyril of Alexandria, “shall be one with him.” Augustine put it boldly and simply: “Let Christ be eaten; when eaten he lives because when slain he rose again.”
“Let Christ be eaten”—that is the essence of today’s Gospel reading. It contains the fourth and final “Amen, Amen” statement from Jesus in his Bread of Life discourse. With each statement (Jn. 6:26, 32, 47), Jesus took his listeners deeper in the mystery of his person, mission, and gift of salvation—a mystery rooted in the Incarnation, pointing to his death and resurrection, and given to the Church in the Eucharist.
As Jesus revealed more, he met more resistance. At first his listeners asked questions (v. 30), then made demands (v. 34), then murmured openly (v. 41), and then began to quarrel over his words. Jesus’ claim that the bread of life he offered was somehow closely linked with his actual flesh was deeply offensive. It smacked of cannibalism, which was an offense providing evidence God had cursed his covenantal people (cf. Lev. 26:27-29). So if Jesus, in saying that “the bread that I will give is my flesh”, was using metaphorical or poetic language, surely he would have cleared up any misconceptions created by his startling language.
Jesus did clear up misconceptions, but not as many of his listeners probably hoped or expected. He clarified his remarks by emphasizing that, yes, he was speaking of his actual flesh and of real eating: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do have life within you.”
These words, more than any other in Scripture, stopped me cold in my tracks many years ago. As a Fundamentalist and, later, as an Evangelical Protestant, I had never heard a sermon or attended a Bible study that grappled with these words. The various books and commentaries I studied did not address satisfactorily the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ declaration, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” I asked the same question as those listening to Jesus in person: Whatever did he mean?
Part of the answer is found in how Jesus described himself as the “living bread that came down from heaven.” G. K. Chesterton, in The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, expressed it well, “Heaven has descended into the world of matter; the supreme spiritual power is now operating by the machinery of matter, dealing miraculously with the bodies and souls of men.” Put simply, the Eucharist is a continuation of the Incarnation. By becoming man, the Son of God took on flesh—not in appearance only and not for just a few years, but in actuality and for all of eternity.
The Creator, having taken on flesh, now brings about a new creation by inviting man to receive his flesh and blood in the Most Holy Eucharist. Having become man, the Son gives himself to us so that we, made sons of God through baptism, might continue growing in truth and grace and divine life, feeding on his life-giving flesh and blood. The Eucharist does not just sustain us, but transforms us; it does not just fill us, but completes us.
John Paul II, in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, wrote, “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist”, and explained that those who receive the Eucharist become “the Body of Christ—not many bodies but one body.”
How do we remain in Christ and become more Christ-like? By eating his flesh and blood. You are Who you eat.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the August 16, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)