20th Sunday 2012 B
Today we continue our fourth reading of the 6th chapter of John’s gospel. The last one will be next week. The theme is the same: Jesus as the Bread of Life. Although there is also a secondary but related theme in today’s readings, that of wisdom.
Picking up from last week, Jesus says that whoever takes the food he has to offer will live forever, a life, we might emphasize, which begins here and now.
But today Jesus also says, "The bread that I will give is my flesh." Not surprisingly, the people around are deeply shocked at this weird-sounding statement. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
"I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life in you." Clearly the most important thing that God wills is for us to find life. In today's eight verses from John's Gospel, Jesus mentions "life" eleven times.
To the eating of his flesh is now added the drinking of his blood. The Jews had both a reverence and a horror of blood. They saw it as the source of life. At the same time, to come in contact with blood was to become ritually unclean.
When a woman gave birth and blood was lost, she could not approach the temple for several weeks. Longer still, if the child was a girl. We remember the Gospel story of the woman who was suffering from a bleeding problem for 12 years. She desperately wanted Jesus to heal her but, because of the large crowd around, she did not dare to reveal herself and her condition. In her faith, she just touched the hem of Jesus’ garment.
Almost certainly, too, this was the reason the priest and the Levite "passed by on the other side" when they saw the man lying on the road and undoubtedly bleeding in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. They were on their way to the Templein Jerusalemand could not afford to become contaminated. And that was the lesson: they put ritual purity above the love of neighbor.
As we know, observant Jews today will only eat meat from which the blood has been drained (kosher). And, now, here is Jesus asking these same people to drink his blood!
In fact, what was the exact meaning of what Jesus was saying? Was he just talking about the Eucharist? No. To eat the flesh of Jesus and to drink his blood is to be totally united with him and filled with his spirit and vision.
The difference between ordinary bread and the bread of life that Jesus gives us is beyond comparison. Normally, when we eat, we assimilate the food. Our body breaks down the food, takes the nutrients it needs, and feeds our cell system. We assimilate it. In a sense, the food becomes part of us. When we receive the Eucharist, we don’t assimilate the food, the Food assimilates us. When we receive the Eucharist, Jesus transforms us. Instead of the food taking on our life, we take on the life of the Lord. It transforms us into the Body of Christ. That is why if we eat it we will live forever.
As the Father transformed the Son’s divinity into the human Jesus, so Jesus transforms his humanity into bread and wine. One miracle is no more incredible than the other. But the purpose of that transformation, that transubstantiation really is amazing. Although the philosophical category of “substance” may not be the issue, real food is. “My flesh is real food and my blood real drink.” And real food and drink are what “real presence” and “transubstantiation” are all about in our sacrament of the Eucharist. What is at stake is what we believe to be most real in our lives. What is true nourishment? And what words best designate the real and true?
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote this astounding sentence: “The proper effect of the Eucharist is to transform us into God.”
You and I pray at the offertory of every Mass: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The Church has prayed for years: “Grant that we who are nourished with Christ’s body and blood may be filled with his Holy Spirit and become one body one spirit in Christ.” Those are extravagant, incredible, impossible prayers. Except that they are guaranteed by Jesus himself.
This connection between Christ and us is possible because there are two transformations that occur at Mass.First is the transformation of bread and wine into Christ. Next is the more important transformation of us into Christ.
St. Paulput it in his usual graphic way: “I live in Christ and Christ lives in me.” To say that I live in Christ means that I live the way Christ lives. And to say that Christ lives in me means that Christ uses my actions, my thoughts, my life as a way for him to live in the world.
St. Thomaswrote: “Since it is the will of God’s Son that people should share his divinity, he assumed human nature in order that by becoming a man, he might make people gods.”
And that brings us to the secondary theme of today’s Mass: To live like this is true wisdom.
Wisdom is personified in our First Reading for today’s liturgy. Wisdom has set a table and invites the “simple” and those lacking “understanding” to “turn in here”. "Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity and live and walk in the way of wisdom and insight." The “wine” and “food” are the wise sayings, the spirit of the relationship with God which will result in deeper understanding and liveliness.
The Letter to the Ephesians also tells us today: "Be careful about the sort of lives you lead – not as unwise but as wise." The food that Jesus offers, the bread and wine that are his own flesh and blood, are the sources of wisdom, giving, as they do, a true understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. Broken and poured out. Ephesians portrays the Spirit as the real answer to our thirst. Quenched, we no longer “act like fools and wallow in ignorance.”
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them. As I draw life from the living Father who sent me, so whoever eats me will draw life from me.” From these words we can begin to understand the mystery of communion. It means totally sharing Jesus’ vision, his ideas, his values. It is to be totally identified with his mission to establish the Kingdom in this world. It is to be nourished by his Word as it comes to us through the Scriptures and have our lives directed by it.
Further, because his flesh and blood are so closely related with his suffering and death, we are to identify ourselves too with that total self-giving, to carry our own cross after him and to accept the sufferings which come into our lives. Today, Jesus is inviting us to follow him, to be with him, to share totally and unconditionally in his mission.