We are what we eat—Sunday: Twentieth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Proverbs 9:1–6; Ephesians 5:15–20; John 6:51–58

Over the last few weeks, we have been reading from some of the most critical texts for us as Catholic Christians—foundational passages in scripture that go to the heart of what it is to be Catholic. The Bread of Life discourse is central to our Eucharistic theology, and the Old Testament prefigurements of the Eucharist that we’ve seen in Exodus and in 1st and 2nd Kings help us to see how God has revealed Himself to us throughout  salvation history.

Wisdom is represented as a great lady in Proverbs who invites everyone to come to the table she has set. Now, Sacred Tradition has always identified the person of Wisdom as a prefigurement of the Christ, Son of God—the Logos as John calls him. Logos is Greek for word. It can be the spoken word, but is also the Word as the thought of God. So you can see Wisdom here is a pre-Christian notion of God’s thought, His concept. The seven pillars mentioned in the reading, some commentators say, represent the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or even the Seven Sacraments. So this is, in a sense, also an image of the Church.

The Torah is especially rich with these allusions. Two weeks ago, we read of the manna in the wilderness, the bread from Heaven that fed the people of Israel all the years that they wandered in the desert. This bread was a mystery to them. They looked at it and asked, מָן הוה (man hu)—What is it? And from that question they got the name manna. That, at least, is how St. Jerome explained it.

This mysterious bread in the desert prefigures the Bread of Life that Jesus speaks of in the gospel. And of course, the Bread of Life is even more mysterious to us than the manna. What is this Eucharist in which we take part every week? Our Church teaches that it is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. When we receive the Eucharist, we receive and consume Christ Himself. That not only binds us to Christ—but binds us to one another as the Body of Christ. So that connection is both vertical and horizontal—we with Christ and we with one another.

This discourse from John is one of those passages we as Catholics should know in and out, especially if we have non-Catholic family members and friends who ask us to explain our belief in the Eucharist. Jesus begins this passage by saying, “[T]he bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” We believe that Jesus means what He said: that in some mysterious way, His body and blood are present in the Eucharist we celebrate on this altar every week. Most of our Protestant brethren believe that Jesus is speaking metaphorically here. They believe the Eucharist is only a symbol.

But look at His words here. Jesus says something that any first century Jew would find repulsive: that they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, acts that are absolutely forbidden in the Torah. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They take him at his word. They don’t say, “Well, he’s only speaking figuratively, so we’ll give him a pass.” They take him seriously and are disgusted. And Jesus’ response is more shocking. He not only doesn’t back down; He ratchets it up a notch: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” We get a weak-kneed translation of the Greek. In the first statement, Jesus uses the Greek word “φάγῃ” (fage), the regular word for eat. In the second statement, He uses the word “τρώγων” (trogon). It means to chew or to gnaw. You have to gnaw on his flesh to have eternal life. That’s not someone backing down. He’s challenging them head on.

His flesh is our bread. Our food. What else would we expect from someone born in Beit Lechem or Bethlehem, as we pronounce it? The name literally means “house of bread.” He was born and laid in a manger—which is a feeding trough for animals. He offers Himself as the lamb of God and dies on the cross at the very same hour when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in the temple. At so many major events in the gospels, Christ provides food from a few loaves and fishes or offers Himself as our food. So Jesus came to give us His life and offers Himself to us not merely to be contemplated but consumed.

We used to hear a common adage that isn’t so common these days: You are what you eat. Whatever you consume is what you become. That’s a very sacramental, Catholic notion.

What if we had some kind of external representation of this reality—that we become what we eat? Maybe a holograph floating over our heads: maybe my daughter, a vegetarian, has a leaf of kale; another, myself perhaps, has a nice rib-eye steak; I thought maybe Fr. Jerry would have had some golden arches over his head, but he assures me it would be pork ribs and sauerkraut.

The thing is, we should want whatever we take in here—what we hear and what we eat—to transform us. Fr. Antonio said something similar in his homily last week—that we should have the odor of Christians. We should radiate and smell like Christian love and mercy. It should be like a cross floating over our heads and visible to everyone. When we come to this altar every week, what we consume should make us into whom we were meant to be. Jesus came to feed us his Divine substance so that we would become divinized by it. As St. Athanasius in the fourth century said, “God became man so that man might become God.” Now that simply means that God’s intent in the Incarnation of Jesus is to adopt us into His Divine life. That is the whole point of the Eucharist we celebrate every week. The Eucharist is supposed to transform us and elevate us into the Divine life to which we aspire. That’s why it’s not okay to approach the altar as if this were simply a symbolic act, as if it had no more significance than eating a sample at Albertsons. That’s why the Church doesn’t have open communion. We believe something very specific about Christ’s revelation to us, and we expect everyone who comes forward here to understand and accept precisely what the Church teaches and what the Church has always taught about the Eucharist.

Jesus delivers a difficult message, and when his disciples draw back, he doesn’t try to soften the message. He intensifies the message. He delves into the detail. He says, I want you to gnaw at my flesh. Jesus doesn’t ask us to nibble at his flesh, but to chew it, to gnaw on it, to consume it. This isn’t the posture of someone trying to soften the blow but someone challenging us. He wants us to know exactly what we are about.

Notice that the way of the world is just the opposite. They compose sterile terminology, euphemisms to lessen the impact of the truth—to soften the reality of what they’re talking about. Those homeless people were merely relocated. Those prisoners only experienced enhanced interrogation. Those products of conception were simply extracted and donated for research for a recovery fee. No harm done, no foul. That’s the language of the worldly: not meant to reveal but to conceal what is really happening.

It’s the opposite of what Jesus came to do. He came to reveal. He came to show us who He is and who the Father is.

What do we do with that revelation? What do we do with the light that Christ instills in us here at this altar? If only we had that holograph above us to say, “I’m a child of God.” If only we had that odor of Jesus, the smell of the shepherd as Pope Francis calls it. If only we had the smell of the roses we place at the feet of the Blessed Mother. But I know that’s not always my odor. I know that I don’t always have that cross hovering over my ever-balding pate. I know that I don’t always reflect the Divine presence that I consume here.

Let’s pray that the offering here draws us further into God’s love, that we become what we eat, that we are divinized by this heavenly bread, this Divine feast. And let’s pray that we reveal that Divine presence to everyone we meet.


About dcnbillburns

I am a deacon for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise.
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