When I told an evangelical friend that I was thinking of becoming a Catholic again, he couldn’t believe what he heard and thought I’d be joining a cannibalistic cult.
“Didn’t you know that they are cannibals since they profess to eat the body of Jesus and drink his blood? Yikes.”
I didn’t know how to answer the question for I myself wasn’t convinced yet that Catholics got it right about the Eucharist. Through years of study, prayer, and reflection I have already realized how Catholic theology made sense in terms of salvation, authority, confession, praying to saints, etc. but the belief that Jesus is actually eaten was not so easy for me to chew on.
I realized that I wasn’t alone. Roman pagans accused early Christians of cannibalism because the disciples of Christ spoke of eating the real body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord during Communion in the Mass.
In the first part of this series in the Eucharist, I would like to share with you the points of reflection I’ve had during my own spiritual journey. Let’s begin with the Scriptures, the written Word of God.
Manna from heaven
In the Bible, when Jesus talks about eating Himself, He says it so plainly and intensely that His Jewish audience – and even disciples – are disgusted and scandalized. Let’s take a close look at John 6.
After the Lord fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish, the people sought him and asked Him for a sign to know how they should believe in Him. Jesus reminded them that they shouldn’t be working for the food that perishes but for the food which He would give that endures to eternal life.
And here’s where the interesting exchange started.
The Jews said that their ancestors ate the manna – bread from heaven – while they were in the wilderness. Jesus responded by saying that their fathers ate manna and now are dead but His Father will give them the bread of God which comes down from Heaven and gives life to the world.
Intrigued, the Jews said, “Lord, give us this bread always.”
Perhaps they were still thinking of the bread they ate just the day before. Jesus surprised them with what he said next: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”
That is where they first murmured and doubted. How can he come from heaven if he was just the son of Mary and Joseph?
Wasn’t he the carpenter who fixed their broken dining table?
Was he the one some of them were playing with when they were young?
The Jews were shocked!
Jesus implored them to believe and said something even more shocking: “…the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh” (verse 51).
You could just imagine how the Jews disputed and questioned the sanity of the man they called “rabbi” after hearing that. The scriptures record how scandalized the Jews were and asked among themselves how can Jesus give them His flesh to eat.
However, Jesus didn’t say, “Wait a minute, you didn’t get my metaphor. Here’s what I meant…” No, in fact, he emphasized what he meant even more.
The Lord said in verse 53 and following, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
Jesus clearly -and repeatedly- said that for men to have eternal life, we should eat his flesh and drink his blood. What’s even more interesting here was how Jesus shifted the verb he used when he said: “eats my flesh” in verse 54.
In the first part of John 6 where he was making references to eating, the word used in Greek was “phago”, an all-encompassing term for eating which can be literal or figurative. However, when He was referring to Himself, he always used the word “trogon” which specifically means “gnawing” and “chewing.”
The Jews couldn’t take what the Lord was teaching them for they knew what He meant – they knew what trogon means. Even his disciples thought that it was such a “hard saying” that they couldn’t listen to.
Jesus knew that they were offended and told them that understanding the matter with the flesh or pure human capacity would be futile for what he said are of the spirit. Still, many of His disciples left him.
Peter’s confession – and ours, too.
Jesus asked the apostles, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Perhaps the apostles were also having a hard time processing what they’ve heard – I mean, who wouldn’t? Imagine your teacher telling you to eat him while in class? Yuck.
But Christ was different. He was not just a teacher in a classroom.
He multiplied the bread and fish to feed five thousand.
He healed the sick and converted many souls.
He walked on the water. He ordered the winds to stop blowing.
He raised Lazarus from the dead. He rose from the dead.
And when he told the Jews that He is the bread of life which they have to eat, they couldn’t believe in Him – so what will convince them? What will convince us?
Peter said it plainly and beautifully in verse 69, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
The apostles chose to believe and waited to be enlightened by the Lord. Exactly one year after that episode, the apostles were gathered for the Passover meal but there was something missing – there was no sacrificial lamb! Then this is what happened…
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins…” (Matthew 26:26-27)
What could be simpler than that?
Jesus didn’t say, “this looks like My body,” “this is like My body,” or “this is a symbol of My body.”
No. He simply said, “this is My body”… “this is My blood.”
Finally, the apostles understood what he meant a year ago. Do you think Peter understood everything the Lord told the Jews? Probably not. Perhaps he and the apostles kept on thinking about it for a long time, but he and the apostles remained faithful.
It was like the first pope was saying, “Lord, we don’t understand everything You have said, but we know You are our everything. It is hard, but by faith, we believe in you.”
Now many popes and more than two thousand years ago have already passed, we tell our Lord every time we receive Him in Communion – “Lord, to whom shall we go? You are the Holy One of God. You are our God, and you are my everything. Thank you for giving us your all – your body, blood, soul, and divinity.”
It is my prayer that when you receive the Eucharist, you’d realize that it is not a simple wafer but the Lord Himself. He’s been waiting for you. He wants to feed your soul and nourish you. He is the bread of life.
Receive Him more often, and your life will never be the same.
In the next two parts of this series, we will examine how the early Christians understood John 6 and why it makes so much sense for the Lord to feed us with His flesh.
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Happy Feast Day of Corpus Christi!