Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
August 19, 2012
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” John 6:55
We come today to what I think is the climax of our continuous reading of the “Bread of Life Discourse” in the Gospel of St. John. If you have not had an opportunity at home to re-read the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of St. John, then you should. In this profound Gospel passage, we hear the teaching on the Eucharist placed before us to absorb and relish, to pass on to our children and those to whom we witness. In the words of St. Paul, “[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:2). Who are these “many witnesses” to whom St. Paul entrusts a message that they will pass on? Before we discover this, let us look at the message.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus more than six times, in no uncertain terms, makes clear that He is “the living bread that came down from heaven” and that “whoever eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:51). Like a parent who is instructing a child or a teacher in a classroom who repeats a lesson phrasing it differently each time, Jesus gives emphasize and He is definitive. Beginning with “Amen, amen,” He insists, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53). He then changes a negative statement to a positive one. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). To avoid any misunderstanding, he now emphasizes the reality of what He is saying. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55). Jesus further dwells upon the intimacy created in this partaking in Him. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:56). Jesus then stresses that the intimacy is not only with Him but also with the Father who sent Him. “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6:57).
Often, even some individual Catholics, make the mistake of thinking of this Presence as simply or merely corporeal. However, if as we hear Jesus so decidedly teach, we understand that this partaking in His Body and Blood is a pledge of eternal life and in fact bestows the gift of sharing in the life of God—we call this Sanctifying Grace—then we are communicating with much more than a bodily presence. As the teaching of the Church states it, we receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1374). It is with this in mind that we read the final verse of today’s Gospel reading: “Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58). The appearances of bread and wine remain. The substance, however, is the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1376). Through this gift we are given life. It is “the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:58). It is Jesus in His completeness, as complete as He can be to us here on earth—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
I have heard some say that this teaching of the True Presence in the Eucharist is an invention of the Catholic Church. Some have even tried to place a date on its “invention.” However, a careful reading of history proves this false. To understand this, we turn to the “witnesses” that St. Paul mentioned earlier.
In the oldest written document, outside the Bible, entitled “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” and written in the First Century of Christian history, we read the following: “Let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist but those baptized in the name of the Lord; to this, too the saying of the Lord is applicable: ‘Do not give to dogs what is sacred’” (Didache 9:5). Another witness was St. Ignatius of Antioch, who succeeded St. Peter as third Bishop of Antioch and around 100 A.D., in a Letter to the Romans, spoke personally the following words: “I have no taste for the food that perishes nor for the pleasures of this life. I want the Bread of God which is the Flesh of Christ, who was the seed of David; and for drink I desire His Blood which is love that cannot be destroyed” (Letter to the Romans paragraph 7). He added in another letter: “Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop…” (Letter to the Philadelphians, 4:1). St. Justin Martyr was a mid-Second Century convert to Christianity. His descriptions of the early Christian “Mass” are well-known. He wrote in a famous work written around 150 A.D.: “[A]s Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus” (“First Apology,” Ch. 66). I could literally stand before you all day reviewing witnesses from the Early Church on this topic of the Eucharist. In the interest of time, I will mention one final witness, although he is by no means alone. He was the second Bishop of Lyons around the year 177 A.D. His name was St. Irenaeus and wrote the following: “[I]f the mixed cup and the manufactured bread receive the Word of God and become the Eucharist, that is to say, the Blood and Body of Christ, which fortify and built up the substance of our flesh, how can these people claim that the flesh is incapable of receiving God’s gift of eternal life, when it is nourished by Christ’s Blood and Body and is His member?” (“Five Books on the Unmasking and Refutation of the Falsely named Gnosis,“ Book 5:2-3).
From the days of the Apostles down through the time in which their disciples and spiritual descendants lived, the Church has witnessed to what the Lord Jesus bequeathed to us. That on the night before He died He took bread and wine, gave thanks over them, blessed them and said “This is my Body,” “This is my Blood.” That what He gave His disciples to eat He intended to be given to us. That the Apostles and those who descend from them would follow His instructions to do this in His memory. That in celebrating the Eucharist we would share truly and really in His sacrificial passion, death and resurrection. That participating in this Eucharist all would be brought to Eternal Life in Him. That the Eucharist would bring the Church to conform more and more truly to His Body.
We should not take lightly so sublime a gift as the Eucharist. We must discern the reality that we receive in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not an exercise in community building nor is it a fellowship ritual. The Eucharist cannot be reduced to such simplicities. Neither can we “give to dogs what is sacred,” to quote the ancient Christian author. And the Church is the instrument Jesus left to bring into the present His eternal redemption what the Eucharist celebrates, commemorates and communicates. Sons and daughters of the Father, we approach the “heavenly food” that gives life to the world (cf. John 6:51).