In 2001 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, published a small book entitled “God Is Near Us”. One of the chapters in that book is headed The Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament. It makes wonderful reading. He begins this chapter with the very text of the Gospel of today’s Mass: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.
In Jesus God himself has taken flesh and come to dwell among us, sharing our human condition and giving himself totally in love to us and for us to the Father, and then remaining with us, daily feeding us with his flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine. He places himself, as Cardinal Ratzinger says, ‘in our hands and in our hearts’. We praise him and sing to our God a joyful hymn, marveling ‘that such a thing could be.’
And yet, as we all know, the doctrine of the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharistic bread and wine has been a stumbling block in the faith of many who would otherwise wish to be Christians. And it was so from the very beginning; from the moment Jesus first taught it in the synagogue at Capernaum. People have always murmured and revolted against it – that such a thing could be.
Without a doubt, for anyone to walk into a Jewish synagogue 2000 years ago and seriously propose the eating of human flesh and the drinking of human blood would be a suicide.
To the Jews listening to him it seemed that Jesus, too, had detonated some kind of bomb in their midst.
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. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.
This is a New Testament ‘bombshell’ but instead of bringing ruin it brings life. It is a ‘construction’ bomb. It does not bring hatred but love, not disorder but order, not confusion but ‘knowledge of God’.
Of course the people are in no way ready for what Jesus is telling them. They are caught between their desire for the promise of eternal life and the bewildering proposal that they must eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus in order to achieve it.
Let us not forget, that Jews were strictly forbidden to consume blood, or even flesh with blood in it. To eat human flesh and blood was even more out of the question.
Then the Jews started arguing with one another: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ they said. I am totally sympathetic to the confusion and frustration of these Jews. Perhaps the modern youth would say, ‘I feel you, brothers.’ But then, on reflection, our faith is littered with such questions?
How can God become a baby? How can a woman give birth and remain a virgin? How water turn into wine? How can the bread and wine become the Body and Blood? How can a man rise from the dead? How can a priest forgive sins? etc.
Jesus answers such questions with a question of his own (John 9:35): Do you believe in the Son of Man? This is the pivotal question, the one which puts all other questions into perspective. The answer to this question will determine our response to all the others.
Some want a God without mysteries and miracles and incomprehensible truths because, deep down, they live in the lie that God must explain himself to their intellect or suffer rejection. They have made of their minds a kind of judgment seat before which God must kneel in order to prove himself.
And do you notice Jesus doesn’t ‘explain’ his teaching? There is actually nothing to explain – there is something to believe, or to put it more exactly, there is a Person to believe in. A person whose words, because we believe in him, are to be accepted as true – without explanation.
Now I can imagine someone might say ‘So why doesn’t Jesus explain how he is going to change bread and wine into his flesh and blood and then ask us to eat him in that sacramental form?’
So you think that would help, do you? Really? You think that ‘the Jews’ and the millions of Protestants around the world will say ‘Oh, okay, so why didn’t anyone tell us that THAT’S how he meant to do it? All these years we thought he was somehow going to slice off his flesh and pour out a cup of his blood for us to drink.’
No, there is nothing to explain – there is a man to believe in – a man of whom Peter, the Rock, will say next week: Lord … we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God. (John 6:69)
Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe…
There was no way Jesus could have made this teaching more acceptable to them and, besides, like all his teachings, this one, God’s teaching, is not susceptible to human criticism.
Jesus had already told them: This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent. (John 6:29) He was not asking them to grasp the how’s and why’s .. he was asking them to believe in the one on whom the Father, God himself, has set his seal. (John 6:27)
It was a moment of high drama: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you … my flesh is food indeed.
How easily Jesus could have pacified them if his words had only been metaphors or figures of speech! But they weren’t, and they aren’t, and so he didn’t. He held his ground: If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever.
The Jews could not believe, it was possible. How can this man give us his flesh to eat?
Next week we will see them walk away. How disastrous for them! But that’s how it is, isn’t it? Refusal to believe is always a walking away but, and let’s be clear about this, it is a walking away which does not invalidate the truth.
The Jews walked away from the teaching on Holy Communion because they understood.
If Jesus’ words are, as Peter affirmed, words of life, then simple logic points out the direction of this walking away and its ultimate destination – and it is not towards heaven.
Jesus came to us in a body because we live in a body. We are not angels but humans and so we have a bodily existence. What Jesus did in the synagogue of Capernaum was to assure us that he would give us bodily food, real food, which we were going to have to eat, like all real food. This food would give life to us, body and soul. It would give us eternal life, body and soul.
If the bread and wine of the Eucharist remain just bread and wine they are not the Body and Blood of our Redeemer and so they cannot give life.
St Augustine struggled with these questions during his conversion and one day was granted a vision in which a voice said to him: I am the bread of the strong, eat me! But you will not transform me and make me part of you; rather, I will transform you and make you part of me.