Summary: Jesus claimed that the bread of Life is his body, and that his body is true food and his blood true drink. We look at three objections to this teaching.

Is This His Body?

19th Sunday in Course

If you visit the ruins of the town of Capernaum–and I truly hope you bite the financial bullet and go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a Christian guide–you can see what is left of the synagogue built where Jesus preached the vital sermon on the Bread of Life. The feeding of perhaps 15,000 people and this sermon take up all of chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. The sermon is in two parts. The first comprises Jesus’ challenge to the Jews to believe in Him so they can gain the Resurrection, and their response of disbelief. (Remember that in Hebrew thought, believing in Him also means doing as He teaches.) After all, they reasoned, isn’t this just a local boy from a nothing town and a nothing family? What’s so great about this guy?

The second part of the sermon comprises Jesus’ claim that the real bread from heaven was not the manna their fathers ate in the wilderness, which simply postponed their eventual death. No, He claims, He himself is the bread of life come down from heaven, and therefore those who eat of His flesh and drink of His blood in this Eucharist and who believe in Him and do what He taught will live forever. Their response–by and large–was to disbelieve and abandon Jesus. “This is a hard sermon, who can listen to it?”

Let me share with you a reflection I have gleaned from the Holy Father’s writings. I think it is particularly appropriate for this community in this age, because what we do here today–rather, what the Blessed Trinity does for us today–has eternal and cosmic significance. In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem tells catechumens what to do as they receive Holy Communion. We should make a throne of our two hands, laying the right hand upon the left to form a throne for the King. Try it right now. You are forming a cross, the cross that becomes a throne for the King of glory, who humbles Himself to become our spiritual food. We open our hands as a sign of our own offering ourselves to the Lord, opening our hands to him. Then, infused with the grace of His presence, our hands can become instruments of his presence and a throne of his mercies in this world. Whether we receive in our hand or on our tongue, we are declaring to all by our “Amen” that we are open to God’s will, just as Jesus was, and ready to do His will even unto the death.

But is it true? When we speak of receiving communion, should we truly ask “who is this?” instead of “what is this?” The murmurs of the Jews recorded in John’s Gospel have surfaced again and again through the centuries. Berengarius of Tours taught that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is “ideal,” not substantial. John Calvin taught that the doctrine of transubstantiation was the work of Satan. The Holy Father suggests that there are today three objections we should face and think through them with the Church. By doing so, we can learn the truth anew and give more profoundly and joyfully the “Amen” of faith as we take communion together.

First question: does the Bible really teach the true, real, substantial presence of Christ, not bread, in the Eucharist? Or is this just a naive misunderstanding of a later age, which transposes the exalted and spiritual reality down to a lesser ecclesiastical version? Second question: is it truly possible for a body to share itself out into all places and all times? Doesn’t this contradict the limitations that are essential in a body? Third, hasn’t modern science, with everything it says about “substance” and matter rendered obsolete those Church dogmas that relate to this? And, finally, what does this mean for you and me, today?

In Luther’s time, the very clear text from four sources, “This is my body; this is my blood” was disputed. What, the Protestants asked, does “is” mean? Does it convey the full force of bodily presence, or just an image? Arguments about one word–“is”–as President Clinton discovered, lead up a blind alley. We have to look at Scripture as a whole. When we do, we see that Jesus had a perfect opportunity here in John 6 to clarify His words, if all He meant was to symbolize His presence. He let most of his disciples leave rather than dilute His doctrine. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians, St. Paul compares what happens in Holy Communion with the physical union between husband and wife. To help us understand the Eucharist, he refers us to the words in the creation story–the two shall become one–and he adds, “he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” That is, he shares a single new existence in the Holy Spirit with Jesus.

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