Our five-part miniseries going through the Gospel of John Chapter 6 continues this week, and the plot continues to thicken. The previous two weeks, Jesus referred to himself as the Bread of Life which had come down from heaven, and he said that faith was the gateway we have to pass through in order to receive this bread that gives eternal life. This week, Jesus goes even further. If faith is the doorway we have to pass through, then the Eucharist is what’s waiting for us on the other side of that door. And it is really just a foretaste of what’s waiting for us.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says explicitly, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” Jesus says that not only is he the Bread of Life, but even more than that, this bread that he gives is his own flesh. And the Jews are shocked. They begin to quarrel over what Jesus is saying. Now he has gone too far: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jewish Law expressly forbad consuming the blood of animals or eating meat that had any blood left in it. So for a man to tell people to eat his flesh and drink his blood was truly shocking.
But Jesus does not back down or soften this statement. In fact, he goes even further. Our English translation of the Gospel does not capture this however. In this Gospel, John records what Jesus is saying using two different words that in English are both translated using the same word: “eat”. First Jesus says, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” And then a few verses later, he says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” It sounds in English like he is basically saying the same thing. But he is not. The first time the word for “eat” used in Greek is esthio – what we normally think of when we hear the verb “eat”. But the second time, a different Greek word is used – trogo. This word has a much different meaning: it is for one thing much more graphic than just saying “eat”. Perhaps a better translation of it in English that would be: “chew” or “gnaw”. Those are both synonyms of “eat”, but they convey a different meaning; they give us a different image if you will than just saying “eat”.
Perhaps you’re wondering what difference this makes. Maybe you’re thinking this is just something that biblical scholars should care about. But the difference between these two verbs makes a huge difference for what we believe as Catholics about the Eucharist. What Jesus is teaching us is that, when he calls himself the Bread of Life, and refers to his flesh and blood as true food and drink which he intends to give to us, he is not speaking in a metaphorical sense. When Jesus said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches,” he was speaking in a metaphorical sense. Jesus would often do that. But here, he switches from the common verb for “eat” to a much more graphic one, to make it clear that he is speaking literally here, not metaphorically. He is not referring to just a symbol. He is really talking about his flesh and blood.
And Jesus says, “The bread that I will give…” At that moment, he had not yet given this bread. He had not yet given his flesh and blood. That would be coming soon, in his death on the Cross, when Jesus gave his whole self, his very body, to God the Father as a sacrifice for us. That sacrifice has now been made. As I said last week, every Mass is a participation in that one, perfect sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross. And from that sacrifice, we are given this spiritual food that is Jesus’ very Body and Blood.
And what does consuming his Body and Blood do? Jesus tells us: he gives us “eternal life”. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” And, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” So, in receiving communion, Jesus comes to us; we unite ourselves to him, and he dwells in us. It is not just our own regular human life that is inside us, but the divine life of God that now dwells in us. This divine life of God can then grow in us and lead us to eternal life when this life ends and the next one begins. And when we enter into eternal life, we will then be filled with God’s very life and love – we will be completely transformed; we will become like God himself.
However, we have to do our part too. Receiving the Eucharist is not receiving a magic pill that just makes us better. First, as I said last week, we have to believe that the Eucharist is what Jesus says it is and that he has the power to do this and give himself to us this way. Second, we have to be properly disposed to receive the Eucharist, i.e. not in a state of mortal sin or living in a way that is objectively contrary to God’s Law. If we have committed a grave sin, then we ought to go to confession first before receiving communion. And third, we have to actively cultivate this relationship with the Lord through prayer, through works of love and mercy, and by actively trying to resist the temptations that inevitably come along. If we do these things, even though we’re not going to be perfect at them, the Lord is going to be working in us, even if it doesn’t seem like it. His life and his love will be increasing in us.
In other words, we will be growing in holiness. And that brings me to an unpleasant topic which I feel that I unfortunately have to address. I don’t know how many of you have been paying attention to the latest news about clergy scandals and cover-ups. Perhaps it is not on your radar; perhaps it’s background noise in your life or there have been so many scandals over the years that it’s just one more. Or perhaps you have been paying attention to it and you are truly grieving and dismayed, as am I. I would say that at the heart of all these scandals is a crisis in holiness. The priests and the bishops who were involved in the scandals themselves, or who were involved in covering them up, were receiving the Eucharist, again and again. But as I said, the Eucharist is not a magic pill that automatically makes us someone we are not. We have to do our part too.
And the root of the crisis we are experiencing now is truly a crisis in holiness in our Church. And we are experiencing the rotten fruits of a lack of holiness. We can form committees and we can create policies and implement new measures – and sure, these are necessary, but if we are not actively seeking to follow Jesus Christ and grow in holiness, there are going to be scandals. And sexual abuse and covering it up are just two facets of it. There are other facets to this too: liturgical and doctrinal abuses, among others, that have been so commonplace for so long. Or pretending that we believe what the Church teaches but ignoring the things we don’t like and then doing the opposite. Your bishops and priests are supposed to be seeking to grow in holiness. Sure, we are going to fail at times because we are human. We need your prayers because the devil wants us to fail. But if you are feeling frustrated or angry or helpless because of these seemingly never-ending scandals, or even if you haven’t really been paying attention to them, our first and primary response needs to be resolving to follow Christ with our whole heart, mind, and soul.
Jesus Christ remains the head of His Church. Let us all strive to welcome him into our hearts each day, so that he may transform us as individuals, and in doing so, will renew his Church.