May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
What should we have for dinner? This is a question we all ask every day. A few years ago I read a fascinating book, exploring the answer to that question and the consequences that answer has for the future of our planet and the survival of our species.
Entitled, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ it is a book written by the investigative journalist Michael Pollan. In it, he explores the food chains that sustain us —industrial food, organic or alternative food, and food we forage ourselves— exploring each through the process of choosing, preparing and eating four different meals. Along the way he explores the political and nutritional implications of the food we choose to eat.
Well, there are profound implications for the kind of eating that is central to today’s Gospel reading.
You might remember that John’s Gospel does not record a ‘last supper’ in the way that the synoptic Gospels do. Instead, in John’s account, Jesus and the disciples simply share a meal after which Jesus washes their feet.
In John’s Gospel, chapter six, is the place where we find Eucharistic language, right in the middle of his life. Jesus blesses, breaks and gives bread as he feeds the 5,000; the crowd follow him reminding him of the manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness and asking what he will do for them; Jesus tells them that he is the bread come down from heaven; and now, he says that to have life they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
There are three very different meals being described here.
Manna has been described as a fine, flaky substance that settles like frost on the ground. It is light and insubstantial. The Israelites were told only to gather what they could eat that day because it did not last overnight but became full of worms and stank.
The barley loaves and dried fish with which Jesus fed the crowd of 5,000 is the food of peasants. Barley loaves are coarse, heavy, sustaining bread, hard on the teeth and needing chewing. And eating dried fish also requires jaw-work. It must be torn from the skin, ground with the molars, sucked on to extract the flavour and the goodness. This is sustenance that requires effort.
The bread of life come down from heaven sounds as though it must be like manna, something light and fluffy, perhaps like an Angel’s Food Cake sponge.
But, Jesus explains, that in reality the bread of life come down from heaven is his own flesh and blood. Not surprisingly, those listening to Jesus are confused and appalled. The Jewish people had strict laws about not consuming the blood of animals so for Jesus to tell them that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood is shockingly incomprehensible.
There is far less of the manna here and far more of the barley loaves and dried fish. Jesus, the bread of life come down from heaven, is the complete opposite of fast food. He is, ‘the food that endures for eternal life’ (6.27). And Jesus promises that, ‘whoever eats of this bread will live forever’ (6.51). This is the ultimate slow food. Sustenance for eternity!
The need to chew on the bread from heaven is clearer in the original Greek than in the English translation. There are two different words for eating used in this passage.
The first, phagein, is used by those questioning what Jesus means. This is the usual word for eating. It is the kind of eating we do when we are eating nicely at the table in a restaurant.
The second word, trogein, is used by Jesus to tell those around him that they must eat his flesh. This word is a far earthier kind of eating. It means to gnaw, to chew on. It is the kind of eating you might do privately with a delicious chop bone that needs to have every last bit of tender flesh removed from it.
This is language that confronts at many different levels. C.S. Lewis acknowledges the shocking nature of Jesus’ words when he writes, ‘the command was, ‘‘take, eat’, not ‘take, understand’.’
And yet, at the same time that it is shocking, it is also beautiful. Jesus invites us into a relationship which goes way beyond the polite grazing of Nouvelle Cuisine. He does not offer us dainty morsels to sample but rather the very structure of his being, bones to chew on to make us grow strong in eternal life. To eat Jesus’ flesh is to take into ourselves the God who chose to be fully human. This is an experience of extraordinary intimacy.
When Jesus tells us that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he says it is so that we may have eternal life (6.54). As we take Jesus into ourselves, we abide in him and he in us and it is through him that we live (6.56-57). This is an invitation to life and living.
For John, eternal life is something that we experience right now, in this life, as we abide in Jesus. Through the incarnation, the real life of Jesus, the word made flesh, eternal life has come among us. In that sense, as we believe in Jesus, as we trust in him, we have already passed from death, all that separates us from each other and from God, into life.
The good news of John’s Gospel is based on a dynamic relationship. Jesus offers to us his life, he tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. As we do, we abide in him.
Abiding might sound static, as though all we have to do is stay put, but that is not how it is. We are to take Jesus into ourselves in the sacrament of the Eucharist and in the living of life.
In the Eucharistic celebration we abide as we give thanks to God the Father for creation, redemption and sanctification; remember Christ’s institution of the sacrament and the great acts of redemption, passion, death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, which brought the Church into being; and call on the presence of the Holy Spirit on the community, and on the elements of bread and wine.1
In the living of our lives we abide in Jesus as we gnaw away at the challenges of faith in him, chew over his words in the reading of scripture, digest and absorb the goodness of his actions through our prayer. In this way, who we are grows out of the nutrition Jesus gives us so that ‘we are what we eat’.
The Lord be with you.