Commentary on Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
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 emphasise, which begins here and now as soon as we start to partake of this special food.
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?" There is a certain contempt, coupled with an ignorance of Jesus’ true identity, contained in the words "this man".
A cultured people
Of course, the Jews were a highly cultured people with a long and distinguished history. Cannibalism was not one of their customs and they abhorred the practices of some of their neighbours who were not above human sacrifice.
But Jesus, who must have been aware of their reactions, only gives greater emphasis to his words: "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." To the eating of his flesh is now added the drinking of his blood.
We have been going to Mass for so many years now. We have become completely inured to many of the things we hear. Again and again we hear with complete equanimity: "Take this, all of you, and eat; this is my body… Take this, all of you, and drink from it; this is the cup of my blood…" Imagine a complete stranger to our liturgy coming in and hearing those words!
So let us now hear them for the very first time from the lips of Jesus as he spoke them on that day: "If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood…" Very strange words! Not only strange but repulsive!
Horror of blood
The drinking of the blood must have seemed particularly disconcerting to a Jewish audience. They had both a reverence and a horror of blood. They saw it has the source of life. How often they saw their young men in battle lose all their blood and die. 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 Temple in Jerusalem and could not afford to become contaminated. And that was the lesson: they put ritual purity above the love of neighbour.
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! You do not have to be a Jew to find the idea abhorrent. No wonder there were people who thought he was out of his mind apart from the scandal his words gave.
And yet, this idea is not so abhorrent to other cultures. We are told that the Jesuit martyrs of North America died such heroic deaths that their killers tore out their hearts and ate them in order that they might get some of the courage of those missionaries.
What did Jesus really mean?
That is very much behind the idea of today’s Gospel, though not, of course, in any literal sense.
In fact, what was the exact meaning of what Jesus was saying? Was he just talking about the Eucharist, with which his words have an obvious affinity? It was much more than that. 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. It is to be able to say with St Paul, "I live, no, it is not I, but Jesus lives in me."
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.
And that brings us to the secondary theme of today’s Mass: To live like this is true wisdom. In the First Reading, wisdom is personified as having built a house with seven pillars. She has prepared a magnificent banquet and then sent out her servants to call all those who are ignorant, who lack wisdom, saying: "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 Letter to the Ephesians (2nd Reading) 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. To eat that food is to be close to him, not just physically but in mind and heart.
And that will be the link between Jesus as the Bread of Life and the source of Wisdom. The source of Wisdom in our lives is the total acceptance of the Vision of Life which Jesus gives. He is the Source, the Bread that provides that Vision.
Eucharist as food
The special way in which we express that and by which we remind ourselves of this call is through our celebration of the Eucharist, where we eat the Body and the drink the Blood.
But we need to remember that this is a sacrament: it is the sign that points to the deeper reality, our ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ. In celebrating the Eucharist, we are saying that we want to deepen that relationship with Jesus, with his Gospel, and with the community which is his visible presence among us.
This life in Christ is the nourishment – in the most real sense – of our life. Without this food and drink, we will die of starvation; our bodies, of course, will keep going but in a very real sense we will have died.
So when we do participate in the Eucharist and "receive Communion", let us not do so passively as if Jesus was just coming to us. It is not just a pious , "Thank you, Jesus." We need to receive actively. When we receive the host, the minister says, "Body of Christ". And we answer: "Amen" which means "Yes!" or "Right on!"
In so saying, we are accepting Christ and his whole Gospel, we accept his victories and his sufferings. We are saying we want to be with him all the way, to serve him with all our heart and soul and work with him for the making of a better world.
A world of truth and love,
a world of justice and peace,
a world of freedom and happiness.
When we see ourselves as really part of that great endeavour then we know that in a very real sense we have eaten the flesh and drunk the blood.