Living Bread, Flesh and Blood (John 6:51-58)

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The content of this Gospel reading would have been thoroughly shocking to its original hearers in its original context. To be candid, it can even sound shocking to us today, and we have the benefit of two thousand years of theology, eucharistic and otherwise, to interpret it. Here is the crux of it in excerpts: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world… Truly, truly, 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… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in 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.”

If it sounds jarring, it was meant to be. Jesus knew his audience and knew his context, and sure enough, many in the crowd of listeners deserted him after this one. But the thing that made these words so hard to grasp also happens to be the very key to interpreting them. Leviticus 17:11-14 prohibits the Israelites from drinking the blood of any creature that they eat. They are to pour the blood out onto the earth, for it represents the life of the creature, stands for atonement in the case of sacrifice, and may not be consumed. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives; for it is the blood that makes atonement by means of the life” (Lev 17:11). Continuing in verse 14, “For the life of all flesh is its blood. Thus I said to the Israelites, You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever consumes it shall be cut off.”

This was the cultural and religious context that Jesus’ listeners knew very well. The Gospel tells us that some of them, therefore, could simply not accept his words on any level, and dispersed. Jesus understood that. But with these words, he is really talking about two central things: his coming into this world from heaven for our sake, and the giving of his life in a definitive sacrifice that demonstrated his love for the very creatures whose dark and murderous impulses led to that sacrifice. It is this divine sacrificial love, culminating in Resurrection, that “makes atonement” for our lives and redeems them from sin and death. 

It is in this way that Jesus’ “blood” is the life that we need to consume. When he says, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life in you,” and “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” he knows exactly the background context that is Leviticus 17:11-14. He knows it is written that the life of the flesh is in the blood, and he knows it is written that the blood, by means of its life, makes atonement. So he tells his followers that he gives his body and blood in the definitive sacrifice, fulfilling the first Covenant yet also inaugurating “the new Covenant in my blood” — as he says during the Last Supper, the institution of the first Eucharist. 

The reading from Paul for today, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, speaks of this Eucharistic meal that Christ instituted for us: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and practiced even by the earliest Christian community, beginning immediately following Jesus’ death and Resurrection, as his disciples began to carry out the teaching he gave them about the life that comes from his body and blood. 

Atonement and redemption through self-sacrificial love are his divine gifts to us. But we must, he says, “feed on him” — that is to say, we must rely on him, turn to him, get our nourishment from him. We must draw from him and remain in him, and he will remain in us, giving us the gift of eternal life, which is nothing less than to abide in the glory of God’s love forever. 

Redeemer, help us to draw on you, the “living bread from heaven,” for our true sustenance. Help us to open our minds to what your self-sacrifice of redemptive, atoning love means individually for each one of us, and help us to accept that gift of your love. Inspire our hearts to drink in your life, which you want to give in abundance, so that your life may remain in us, and we may dwell with you eternally. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

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