FLESH AND BLOOD! REALLY?

Author: Fr. Mike Byron
August 19, 2018

What do homemade chocolate chip cookies and a bucket of KFC original recipe chicken have in common?  Other than the fact that they are two of the most delicious and unhealthy foods that one could eat….

I’ll spare you the suspense.  The answer is that they are the foods that I could most expect to encounter when I was a child visiting my grandparents’ homes.  Both of my grandmas loved me and my siblings.  They just showed that love in very different ways.  Grandma Bryon baked cookies for us.  Grandma Lawlen paid for us to have dinner brought in from Colonel Sanders, because she wasn’t much for cooking herself.  But it made for a pretty big difference in what it meant to encounter that food, a difference that even a young child like me could intuit, even if I couldn’t really articulate it.

To eat of Grandma Byron’s cookies was to assent to the love that she had poured out in making them.  It was about her and us, not just about dough and sugar.  But to eat of Grandma’s Lawlen’s KFC was basically just to have chicken.  It was about the herbs and spices and oil and breading, but not so much about a relationship.  There was something deeply personal going on in these cookies.  Not so much in that bucket, even though I loved them both.  They were not comparable experiences.  

And maybe that simple distinction can help us to better understand what Jesus is trying to say to his followers in today’s gospel of John in speaking of his body and blood as the very food and drink of eternity.

The Jews who listened to him took offense, because it sounded as if he were speaking to them of cannibalism—and indeed that’s exactly the false accusation that many of the first churches had to fend off as they proclaimed this gospel in new lands.

What do you mean, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood?”  That sounds abhorrent on its face.  And yet these aren’t just figures of speech or light metaphors either.  There’s something profoundly physical and immediate about what Jesus is talking about here.  But if it’s not cannibalism, what is it?

I think that the rest of John’s gospel can help us to make better sense of all this.  We might do well to remember the last supper scene, for example, when rather than saying, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” the Jesus in John’s gospel instead interrupts the meal in order to wash everybody’s feet—and to command that every worthy disciple do exactly the same thing in his memory—forever.  That’s not cannibalism, but it is very “fleshy.”  To follow this master requires engaging real human beings in their very real and concrete situations, where they are hungry and thirsty and bleeding and dirty and unwelcomed.  This gospel is not basically a philosophy or a physically disengaged flight into the spiritual clouds.  It’s about the encounter with flesh and blood each and every day.  Truly to be partakers of Jesus in eating his body and drinking his blood requires entering into a relationship with him.  In eating my Grandma Byron’s cookies I was, in a very real sense, eating from her very substance, her love, her labor, her desire to see me happy.  A bucket of KFC from Granma Lawlen provided a tasty meal, but not much more.  She showed love in other ways, but not at the dinner table with the Colonel.

When Jesus speaks to us of flesh and blood as the heart and soul of discipleship, he’s telling us that true faith has to be embodied, disclosed and shared in the way that we physically are with each other—in our commitment physically to stand with each other in joys and sadness, exultations and failures, conflicts and reconciliations.  Ours is not a faith that floats over real life and real concrete love.  It lives in the flesh and blood of every day—or it is not really alive at all, or it is something other than Christian.  That’s what Catholics mean by “incarnation”:  a faith that is flesh, not mere philosophy.  In living out our faith we are not simply dispensing of nuggets of moral insights or obeyers of rules, or adherents to propositional claims about truth.  That’s all good too, but that’s not flesh and blood discipleship, and flesh and blood is the bottom line.  

This past week has been yet another dreadful one of scandal involving high leadership in our church and revelations of systemic abusive and deceptive behavior.  We believers are absolutely right to be outraged, not only for the wounds that have been inflicted on so many innocents, but for the fact that the very substance of the gospel has been put at risk.  We know what is at stake here, and so we are duty bound to make it stop in whatever way that requires.

All the preaching about truth and all the discourse about love means very little if our very human interactions in flesh and blood are demonstrating something different.  Jesus’ gospel words today do not promise eternal life to the one who aces the catechism test or who moralizes with the greatest eloquence or who conforms to the rules most rigidly.  No, that promise is reserved for those whose engagement with faith is a lot more real and raw and immediate.  Eat my flesh and drink my blood, is what he says.  Have to do with me and with the flock that I love—every one of them.  Don’t come to Eucharist simply to get the food and drink and them to go home for another week.  What is received here is not like a bucket of chicken, something mass produced that could be consumed by anybody without thought or responsibility.  What is received here is a lot more like homemade cookies, intended just for us, created in love and shared as the most intimate possible expression of personal care, and stirring up in us a passion to live into that same self-giving love with others.  Let us pray for the grace truly to recognize and to welcome this Eucharistic food for what it is, and to dedicate ourselves to its demands.


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