One of the most difficult teachings of Jesus is His assertion that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood if we are to have eternal life. The Church has grown in her appreciation of this sacred mystery over the centuries by proclaiming that, as the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus is truly and substantially present to us – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Although many of Jesus’ disciples find this teaching hard to accept, the difficulties that come from making what is relevant to them more trustworthy than what is revealed by God do not absolve them from accepting all that Jesus has taught.
As a matter of fact, John proclaims that the spirit of the antichrist denies Jesus Christ come in the flesh (I Jn 4:2-3). Although this mystery has many dimensions that are difficult to understand, there are a few truths that can help us to appreciate and share this great gift more faithfully in dialogue with non-Catholics.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that covenantal love requires that one not merely provide services or tokens of affection to the beloved. In such profound love, one gives one’s very self in one’s totality to the beloved. Since Jesus is love incarnate (cf., I Jn 4:16), He must give Himself to us completely if He is to be true to Himself in His redemptive relationship with us. By analogy, we can see that, in marriage, spouses do not merely give themselves to each other spiritually or symbolically, but in their totality. Similarly, the perfect nature of divine love would require that Jesus not only give Himself to us spiritually or symbolically, but rather in His totality.
Along the same lines, it needs to be pointed out that denial of the Church’s teaching concerning the Eucharist would call into question a key element of the Christian faith. All mainline Christian churches assert that salvation requires giving one’s self completely to Jesus, if He is to be one’s Savior and Lord.
But how is it possible for me, as a frail sinful human being, to give myself completely to Jesus in the New Covenant, if Jesus, Who is Almighty God, is unable to give Himself – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity -completely to me? It would be absurd, if not blasphemous, to assert that, in the New Covenant, I can do something that God the Son cannot and does not do. Or it would lead me to believe that Jesus can only save me partially – in which case, He has only achieved a partial victory over sin and death. Such a “gospel” would be rather vapid, if not outright ridiculous!
A third reason why the Church’s doctrine and discipline concerning the Eucharist is so important for the development of a healthy spirituality is more mystical. The Church teaches that only those who are both baptized into Christ and living in the state of shared divine life (i.e., sanctifying grace) are able to enter into a holy communion with Jesus by receiving the Blessed Sacrament. While a non-believer is physically capable of consuming the sacred species, such an action would not be a sacramental communion.
Likewise, a baptized person consuming the sacred species in the state of unrepented mortal sin, aside from committing a sacrilege, would no more be entering into a sacramental communion with Jesus than would be a Roman soldier, who swallowed some of Christ’s blood that squirted into his mouth as he hammered a nail into His hand.
Sacramental communion requires that one be a living member of the Body of Christ. In view of this, we can note the physiological fact that, by the time of His crucifixion, most of the nourishment from the Last Supper was no longer available to Jesus to maintain His metabolism. Hence, the only way He had of getting the strength He needed to endure those long hours of excruciating pain and to speak His dying words of forgiveness and love was by breaking down the tissues of His own body. He was actually consuming His own flesh and blood.
Thus it is that, as actual members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are nourished on His Sacred Body and Precious Blood without practicing cannibalism. We are no more cannibals than a person losing weight due to a lack of food is a cannibal. At the same time, though, this sacramental action is also a covenantal action. Since we are to love one another as Christ has loved us, we are to live out this sacramental communion by nurturing others in the Body of Christ not merely with our surplus, but with our very substance.
This is especially true where other members of the Mystical Body of Christ are trying to reach out to the spiritually and materially impoverished with the compassion, love and truth of Christ. Just as we have a right to be nurtured on the very Body and Blood of Christ, so also others in the Body of Christ have a right to our sacrificial support in their outreach ministries to the world. We, who eat His flesh and drink His blood, must ourselves be consumed by His love in all aspects of our life and relationships.
Rev.. Thomas R. Collins is a Catholic priest in the service of the people of Virginia.