I recently attended the funeral of an old friend. The presider, on greeting the casket, said to the assembled friends and mourners: “91 years ago, in her Baptism, Rosemary died with Christ . . .” Despite having participated in literally hundreds of funeral liturgies, with all their symbolic ties back to baptism, I suddenly realized, just that day, that the real transition for Rosemary had occurred not a few days ago, but 91 years earlier. At that point she died to death itself. Her recent physical death simply completed what was begun at baptism. The life she started then had not ended with her physical death, and that death, which had called us all together that morning, was not the end. As the gospels of yesterday and today stress, she had been given eternal life, not now at her physical death, but 91 years ago.
Jesus’ hearers didn’t understand what He was saying in today’s passage, mainly because there was no precedent in human experience for what He said He was offering them. Today it’s no less hard to grasp fully what these gospel verses mean. Neverthelass, they are a critically important part of John’s gospel and a principal scriptural foundation for the Church’s Eucharist. (They are actually the counterpart in John of the Last Supper institution narratives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)
It will be helpful, I think, if we can get past a confusion about the word “flesh”. “Flesh” is semitic for human life; it doesn’t mean here meat taken from a dead animal.
Jesus’ statement about giving us His flesh – His life – has two levels of meaning. First His earthly life – up to and including His death – are given to us (and for us) by God. And yes, He literally gave His life for us on the cross. Jesus is, in that sense, God for us and not just God with us (“Emmanuel”, as we proclaim at Christmas). Yes, as believing Christians, we do accept the incredible truth of this gift. But what is almost too astounding to believe is that Jesus goes much further: He gives His life to us, His life becoming our life. That’s precisely what happens in Baptism. That’s the new life Rosemary had received those many years earlier. Christ literally, not just figuratively, lives, not just within us but as us and through us – each one of us. Moreover, in parallel with physical food, that life is nourished by our participation in the Eucharist, which is what Jesus is speaking about in this gospel passage.
Just as physical food nourishes our physical bodies as fuel, just as its chemicals are incorporated into the very chemical stuff of our own tissues, continually replacing the original physical material so that we truly become what we eat, so the Eucharist nourishes the Christ life within us so that we become more and more fully what we “eat”. We more and more live out who we are – who have been since our Baptisms. Thus those who “eat this bread” will never die – indeed! No wonder Jesus’ hearers didn’t get it. Do we get it? Do I? Do I act as if I understand?
Jesus’ life, given to us in Baptism, is why Baptism is more than just a ceremony celebrating initiation into an organization. That’s why you can’t be baptized twice. That’s why, while you can be a bad Christian after Baptism, you can never again be a non-Christian. That’s why one of the great theologians of Vatican II stressed that the community has a right to the Eucharist, for without it the community starves. (That’s why excommunication is such a terrible penalty and, finally, that’s why leaving the Church because of discouragement is such a sad, mistaken thing to do.)
What we are – what we receive – we do not deserve and could not earn. Nor can we fully comprehend. But we are able to say, with St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me . . .” (Gal 2:20). That is not a figure of speech. It is a reality almost too astonishing even to believe. We don’t have to grasp these truths fully. Indeed, we can’t. But still, we can be in awe.