Even if it doesn’t seem so, this part of the Gospel of John (6:51-58) is, arguably, the crudest, most repulsive, most shocking one of the whole Bible. It is so intentionally, in order that none of the realism and physicality of the message may be lost. To help us comprehend the full message that the risen Lord wants to convey to us, today, I invite all of us to picture a familiar image.
Let us picture a dog gnawing relentlessly, single-mindedly on a bone until the last trace of the smallest shred of meat and sinew is gone; the bone is more than perfectly clean; it shows a lot of the dog’s teeth indentations. Would anyone be foolish enough to attempt to take that bone away from the dog? The dog’s silent message is clear: until all which the bone has to offer is gnawed away and assimilated, the job is not done.
Now, let us keep firmly in place that image of a dog gnawing on a bone as I repeat what the Lord is trying to carve in our minds and hearts, today: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.
Alas, the repulsive realism of this statement, which is basic to our Catholic Faith, is partially lost in the translation. Here is my unscholarly attempt at a more literal translation: Whoever gnaws on my flesh the way a dog gnaws on a bone and guzzles down my blood, becomes part of me and shares my very life divine.
Now, we begin to understand why, back then, those Jews, who heard such a repulsive, disgusting claim, were horrified and quarreled among themselves at the thought of cannibalism proposed by the Son of Man.
Today we should not expect that, after repeating the same shocking message for 2000 years, the risen Lord would soften or alter his message one iota for us in the Church!
It would be much more spiritually profitable for us to try to figure out why, today too, he insists so shockingly on this crucial point of our Catholic Faith.
I will mention two reasons. First, this crude, gross realism is intended to eliminate any misunderstanding as to what we are to gnaw on—and assimilate. It is not simply God’s words but God’s flesh, too, that we ought to consume, to munch on. If we run through the teachings of Christ developed in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, we should notice that the Father wants each of his children by adoption to feed on his divine Son Jesus Christ FULLY, and not to think that feeding only on his words of life would be sufficient. That is to say that, in order to “remain” in the risen, all powerful, all victorious Lord, and he in us, we should start by feeding on his words.
But, according to the Father’s design and salvific will, we must move, then, from the Table of the Word to feed also on the Table of the Sacrament.We are expected to gnaw on the very flesh of our Lord. This move from feeding on God’s words to gnawing on his flesh is what triggered the original repulsion and the quarreling because the message smacks unequivocally of cannibalism.
The Jews were quite familiar with the concept of “eating” God’s Word. In Ezekiel we read the following: He said to me: Son of man, eat what is before you; eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat.
Familiarity with this concept of “eating” God’s Word is found also in the New Testament. In Revelations we find this: I took the small scroll from the angel’s hand and swallowed it. In my mouth it was like sweet honey, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.
The second reason why the risen Lord urges us all to gnaw on his flesh is so that we can share in the same divine DNA!
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.
My dear fellow gnawers on God’s flesh, I hope that we begin to appreciate the substantial difference between those who feed simply on God’s Word and those who feed first on God’s Word and, then, urged by Christ, dare to gnaw on his flesh until they are inseparable and indistinguishable from him!
Let us go back to that image of a dog doggedly (pun intended) gnawing on its bone. There is single-mindedness and steadfastness in a chewing dog; there must be stubborn, resolute doggedness in us, too, every time to approach the Table of the Eucharist. The similarity with physical eating should be kept also in our spiritual feeding on the Lord.
In the course of our earthly life we go from our mother’s milk, to baby food, children’s food, adults’ food and even special foods and corrective diets.
Starting each day (or at least each weekend) by feeding on the Word of God is essential, because it is the only sure way of finding out precisely how we are to become Christ-like within the concrete situation in which we happen to be living at each particular juncture of our life.
But, then, we must gnaw on the Eucharist because without Christ, or separate from Christ, we can do nothing (see John 15:5); we cannot bear any fruit but are bound to wither and die. If we do not gnaw on the flesh of the Lord we won’t have the strength, the resolve, the spiritual stamina to eliminate sin and to grow in the virtues that will make us more Christ-like with every worthy reception of Holy Communion.
Obviously, now and then, we will falter; we will fall victim to self-interest, fear, laziness, aloofness and other forms of human frailty. But we should never lose sight of the lofty goal of becoming Christ-like.
Rooted in sincere humility and solid realism, relying on God’s grace, we ought to aim high.
St. Paul started lower than most of us and, yet, this is what he could claim towards the end of his earthly life: . . yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. We accept the daily challenges of God’s Word and, then, we feed single-mindedly on the flesh of the Lord; we avoid wasting God’s grace, and remain confident that, eventually, people will recognize Christ also in our humble human actions.