As I have shared the past 3 weeks, the Church has given us this series of 5 weeks to work our way through the great chapter of Eucharistic teaching, John chapter 6, today is the 4th of 5 weeks. For those who didn’t hear my homily, in the 1st week, which was 3 weeks ago, I talked about how at Mass we gather as community, as God’s people to worship Him, and what God brings about in us who are in the state of grace to receive Communion. The following week, 2 weeks ago, my homily reflected on how the Eucharist, which is the New Manna, is not a mere metaphor, as some non-Catholics can believe it to mean. And last week I shared that even though it can be hard to believe in the Eucharist, how in a time in Adoration, the Lord showed me that my own, and every person’s personal faith and understanding in the Eucharist is intrinsically tied to the Incarnation. Now, if you are now thinking that you missed out, and wish you were there, don’t worry, because I write out my homilies, all of my homilies are on our website, free of charge.
In today’s Gospel, 6 times Jesus says that we must eat what Jesus gives to have life within us. Most Protestants read this part of John 6 and think that Jesus is only speaking metaphorically or think He only means a spiritual, but not literal or actual Presence. What I want to do today is explain what is really happening at every Mass, as well as why there is such an importance on eating His flesh, and why what Jesus says 6 times can’t be taken any way but literal. This is the key difference between Catholic and Protestant faith, and why it is a sin to miss Mass as Catholics but is not central in Protestant worship.
Jesus said that “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world”. And the Jews understood what Jesus said, they took him to mean it literally, so they quarreled among themselves- saying, how can He give us his flesh to eat. Jesus continues, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you do not have life within you”. And whoever does eat his flesh and drinks his blood will have eternal life because he will raise him on the last day”. So, the Jews heard the importance- do eat, have life, or don’t eat and don’t have life- no third option was given. Notice also how Jesus doesn’t take back what he said, or say he didn’t mean how they understood it, but instead he makes it more concrete, more explicit. Even though our translation says that His flesh is ‘true food and true drink’, a more accurate translation, which is ironically the translation in most Protestant bibles, is that Jesus’ flesh is ‘real’ food and ‘real’ drink. Jesus said that his flesh is real food and real drink, thus it can’t be a metaphor or symbolic. And if that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus purposely changes the word and the meaning for to ‘eat’. Up to this point in John 6, whenever Jesus said to eat his flesh, the Greek word ‘esthio’ was the common word used to say to ‘eat’ in the ‘to consume’ or ‘take within you’ sense, and thus to eat or consume, one could think of it in a symbolic kind of way. But instead Jesus uses a different word for ‘to eat’, trogo, which is used to describe the actual act of eating, meaning to ‘gnaw’ or to ‘chew’. So it is impossible to take it metaphorically but that Jesus is actually meaning that his flesh that He will give is real food and real drink and that we are to literally eat, gnaw or chew, it.
However, besides the fact that the literal words Jesus uses can’t be taken symbolically; when Jesus said, “unless you eat my flesh you do not have life within you”, there is a reason the Jews understood Jesus literally, for to ‘eat’ or chew would have made complete sense for the Jews to hear, because the Jews actually and literally ate bread and flesh for their salvation. To fully understand what we do is not just a metaphor or only a memorial, we need to recall what the Jews did and believed at the Passover.
In the Old Testament, remember that God chose to save his people, the Israelites, from sin through sacrifice, most notably seen through the Passover. Remember that in Exodus 12, God saved his people from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt through the sacrifice and eating of the Passover Lamb. God instituted the Passover and commanded every family to kill, roast, and eat an unblemished male lamb with unleavened bread, and drink wine, and by doing so they were set free from Pharaoh’s slavery and ready for the journey to the Promise Land. But remember that in Exodus 12 God commanded the Passover to be a ‘perpetual memorial institution’, so not just a one-time event, but an event to be celebrated over and over again throughout the centuries. Therefore, every year for the Passover, the Jews would sacrifice an unblemished male lamb and eat its flesh with unleavened bread. And they thoroughly believed that through these annual ritual actions every year they were saved, just as their ancestors were saved from Pharaoh’s evil treatment. Therefore, celebrating the Passover was not just a ritual for remembering how God saved their ancestors, but it was how God was saving them then, in their time. So, the salvation that came through the first Passover is re-presented, is made present, and thus also the effects of the 1st Passover, the freedom, was made present through them celebrating the Passover each and every time. Because of all this, the Jews knew that every person’s salvation came through the sacrifice and the eating of the Passover Lamb. Let me say that again so that it sinks in for us, they understood that salvation came through the sacrifice and them eating the Passover Lamb each and every time.
Flash forward now to Jesus at the Last Supper in upper room, which is the final celebration of the Passover with his disciples. But in this Passover, Jesus does something a little different than he did in years past. Instead of focusing on the flesh of the lamb, Jesus takes the unleavened bread and says, “take this all of you and eat it, this is my body which is given for you”. And in the same way, Jesus tells his disciples to drink from the cup for the forgiveness of sins. After celebrating the Passover each and every year of their lives, the disciples knew the words and actions centered on the killing and eating of the Passover Lamb for the forgiveness of sins and their salvation. Therefore, in this final Passover, Jesus is clearly telling his disciples that He is the new Passover Lamb that is to be sacrificed; is to be sacrificed but not yet. We need to note that Jesus didn’t finish this Passover with the customary drinking from the final cup of wine, instead, Jesus interrupts the meal and goes out to the Mount of Olives where he is arrested, tried, and sentenced to be crucified. There, hanging upon the Cross, Jesus says he is thirsty and takes a sip of wine from a sponge given to him and says “it is finished”. This is the 4th cup to conclude the end of the Passover. The disciples would have understood, ‘it is finished’, meant the Passover supper which began in the upper room is now finished. This final Passover meal was only completed after the new Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. But every Jew knew that it was not enough that the Passover Lamb be sacrificed, but it must also be eaten. Jesus is the new Passover Lamb who was sacrificed, and so we must eat of the Lamb in order to be saved! Knowing that Jesus is the Passover Lamb that was sacrificed for the forgiveness of our sins, we must then eat the Lamb.
And that is why at every Mass the priest holds up what used to be bread and wine, and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world”. Every Mass is the new and final Passover Jesus celebrated, we are actually doing what Jesus commanded the disciples to do, “do this in remembrance of me”. But for the Jews, and for us Catholics, the word ‘remembrance’ is not understood simply as recalling a past event, we are not just remembering what Jesus did upon the Cross; but as the Jews believed about the Passover, and which the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Eucharist is a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the Cross”. Therefore, the effect of freedom the first Israelites truly experienced, the same forgiveness that the Jews received each and every celebration of the Passover, the same salvation that was won and which the disciples experienced through the death and resurrection of Jesus, are the same and real effects made present for us in each and every Mass. For Protestants it is no big deal to miss a Sunday, and if there is an altar, it is not the focus of their worship; but because for Catholics, in every Mass the Sacrifice of Christ and our redemption is made present, and so what Jesus says is literally true, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you”. Let us take Jesus’ literal words to heart, and do what He commanded, let us enter into the Sacrifice and eat the Lamb for our salvation, today and every Sunday at least.BACK TO LIST