One of the things that I remember from studying the early centuries of the Church is the mistaken accusation in some parts of the world that Christianity taught cannibalism when the liturgy spoke of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
This was not the case in the controversy that the Jewish leaders were having with Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum that we heard about in today’s Gospel.
Instead, Jesus was faced with simple incomprehension. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52)
Jesus replied to those people, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (v. 53) He elaborated on what he meant by that. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (v. 54) and “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (v. 56)
These things can be considered a prelude to the words Jesus would say to his disciples in Jerusalem the night before he was crucified.
At that time Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then he took the cup saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” (Cf. Mt. 26:26-29; Mk. 14:22-25; Lk. 19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25)
Through those words Jesus confirmed what he had said in that synagogue in Capernaum. He has passed his promise on to us. He will be with us whenever we partake of his body and blood.
The controversy at Capernaum that was told in the Gospel reading today concerned both incomprehension and too literal an understanding of Jesus’ words about his body and blood.
Currently I am re-reading the spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. The author repeatedly warns against taking words and concepts too literally. When I say that I have devoured a book, I mean that I have absorbed its meaning. The intention of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel was to give their spiritual meaning.
For us the outward and visible signs in Holy Communion, the consecrated bread and wine, become the inward and spiritual grace of the body and blood of Jesus.
This is spelled out for us in the words that Jesus spoke in that synagogue. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (Jn 6:56) By those words we have the fulfillment of the promise Jesus made to be with us when we eat his flesh and drink his blood in Holy Communion. By our meditation and prayer we can realize Jesus’ presence in us, and ours in him.
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