Eucharist: Not Just a Symbol

Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Hopefully your parishes had celebrations like adoration and Eucharistic processions. Days like yesterday serve as an important reminder that the Eucharist is not just a symbol of Christ, but Christ Himself.

Many books have been written on this subject, and I do not imagine that I will be able to improve on the wise and holy writers that have come before me. But I did want to focus on one particular place where Jesus gives us this message from the Gospel of John.

Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel contains what is called the Bread of Life discourses. Unlike Mathew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel John does not describe Jesus invoking the Eucharist at the Last Supper. To be clear, this does not mean that John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels. One of the main theories regarding the writing of John’s Gospel is that he had access to the first three Gospels and intentionally tried to focus on stories that had not been covered already. So for John, he describes Jesus explaining the Eucharist much earlier in the Gospel.

But before we get to the Bread of Life discourses, we should examine a pattern that emerges in the Gospel of John. Let us first look at Christ’s dialogue with Nicodemus:

Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born* from above.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?”
Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
– John 3:3-5

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be reborn. However, Nicodemus makes the mistake of taking Jesus literally. He finds the idea of re-entering and exiting his mother’s womb to be horribly disgusting. In response, Jesus must correct Nicodemus. He tells Nicodemus that His teaching is spiritual and not literal. Christ’s words of “water and Spirit” spiritualize the meaning of rebirth.

Later, Jesus has a dialogue with the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Jesus says He will give her Living Water:

[The woman] said to him, “Sir,* you do not even have a bucket and the well is deep; where then can you get this living water?…
Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again;
but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
-John 4: 11, 13-14

As with Nicodemus, this woman takes Jesus literally and so Jesus must correct her. Once again we see the movement from the listener being too literal to Jesus moving them to a more spiritual understanding.

But let us look at what happens in John 6.

Jesus spends a good portion of the passage speaking about He is the Bread of Life. Now, this could be taken as simply a spiritual title like “Light of the World” or “Good Shepherd.” But notice what Jesus says here:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.
– John 6: 51-54

Notice how Jesus breaks the pattern. Before the pattern was thus:

A: Jesus teaches
B: The listener takes him literally
C: Jesus corrects the listener by making His teaching more spiritual.

But here it is different. Instead of becoming more spiritual, Jesus gets more literal.

The word He uses for eat is the verb that is used in Greek is trogo. This is the word for what animals do when gnawing their food. The word He uses for “flesh” is sarx, which literally translates as something like “hunk of flesh,” not some finely cut meal. And for the Jewish people, blood is horribly unclean. The idea of drinking blood would be so gross, I would not be surprise if some members of the audience became nauseated at the mention of it.

If the Eucharist was meant only to be symbolic, then Jesus would have followed the same pattern as He did with Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well. Instead of going more spiritual, He goes more literal. It is clear that Jesus does not want us to make the mistake of reducing the Eucharist to ONLY a symbol.

For many people, this teaching is difficult to accept. In fact, the majority of Catholics in America do NOT belive that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. But our belief is not based on majority opinion, but on the One who taught us. And His words are true.

After Jesus taught us the Eucharist in John 6, many of His followers leave. When He opens the door to the 12 to leave as well, Peter responds. And may His words be ours when we approach the Eucharist:

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
– John 6:68-69

Copyright 2023, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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