Some years ago, I was teaching Eucharistic theology to a class of college students. A non-Catholic raised her hand with a stunning declaration: “If I believed that the bread and wine were changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, I would want to be nourished on that food every day.”
America Magazine has just published a survey entitled “Why They Left,” co-authored by Fr. William J. Byron, S.J. and Dr. Charles Zech. The exodus from the Church continues for various reasons, among them matters dealing with the Eucharist, its ritual, preaching, and other particulars of the liturgy. The respondents of report, for the most part, are “willing to separate themselves from the celebration and reception of the Eucharist.” The conclusion of the report calls for “a creative liturgical, doctrinal, and practical response.” At the root of this crisis is a weakened faith or loss of faith. A single viewing of programs like Dr. Phil and Judge Judy suggests that, for the average man and woman entangled in the weeds of life, religious faith, Catholic or otherwise, can be the farthest thing from their minds.
America, the Skeptical
Americans doubt government and elected leaders, public trust–banks, hospitals, and law enforcement, and church leaders. Increasing numbers of Catholics doubt the efficacy of the Eucharist. Trying to grasp the meaning of Catholic teachings is a laudable practice, and belief in the Eucharist seeks understanding of it, the first of which is giving thanks to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for creation, redemption, and sanctification.
You Are What You Eat
The truism, you are what you eat, is pre-eminently applied to the Eucharist. In chapter six of the Johannine gospel, Jesus shocks the Jewish leaders with the assertion: “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever, and I shall raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:51, 54-56).
The notion of consuming human sacrifice, a grossly repellent practice to human decency, was forbidden in the Law. But instead of moderating his words to the leaders, Jesus only intensifies the ultra-realistic verb trogein (Greek: to crunch, to gnaw); he uses the crude word four times in this instruction (vv 54, 56,57, 58). The verb connotes both the state of being torn to pieces and the mandate to consume the sacrifice (W.F. Dewan, “The Eucharist, As Sacrament,” NCE 5: 603-4). Consuming his flesh will give not just temporary nourishment but eternal life as well.
One can only imagine the disgust of those who walked away from these words. Such madness, such double-talk: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have life in you. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” Peter found himself cornered when the Master asked if he too wanted to go away. “Lord, to whom shall we go,” he quipped; “you have the words of everlasting life” (Jn 67-69).
I Could Eat You Up Alive
Why did Jesus give himself to us as food? In the Eucharist, Christ the priest offers the sacrifice; he is also the sacrificial food-offering and its Real Presence. Therefore the senses of tasting and eating are essential. Now eating is one of the conditions for sustaining life and energy. It promotes growth, and is generally considered an enjoyable and satisfying experience. In the Johannine Gospel, Jesus understands the relationship between eating and having life when he answers the Jews: "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (Jn 6:22). Being nourished by his food is the condition for life in God. At that last Passover meal, Jesus perpetuated himself by taking the form of Eucharistic food, and the disciples consumed the sacrificial offering.
Among our phrases of endearment, we have the phrase, “I could eat you up alive.” It is most often reserved for an infant when a parent wishes to express inexpressible love for his or her child. This metaphor says more about the desire for intimate union between parent and child than the words themselves convey. It lends vividness to the fact that, as the bread of life, Jesus wants to unite himself to us. Moreover, the relationship between body and food is learned in early infancy because of the all-nurturing maternal breast. The relationship between body, food and survival is something that most people have learned through the body of a woman. It is a matter of primary bonding. The phrase, “I could eat you up alive” implies that life, the body, and food go together. They are co-relative.
Thus, the orality of love: God gives to humankind his Eucharistic Son, his thankful Son. Jesus, in his body, blood, soul, and divinity, gives himself as food and nourishment to his Church. The response on man’s part is a return of Eucharist, of giving thanks. It is a mystery of faith, faith given, faith received, and the only thing which can be perceived with the senses is that of eating and drinking.
In his Easter Sermon, 227, St. Augustine exhorts: “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive.” And in receiving Christ, we become one body in him, and through him, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Through receiving the Eucharist, we enter into a unique and personal relationship with the Trinity and with one another, the Body of Christ. We become what we eat.
My former non-Catholic student could not herself produce this faith however much she wanted it. This is what she was getting at.