“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
So begins one of the finest novels written in English in the last century, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. It is not, however, the saddest story ever told. That distinction belongs to a tale told in Aramaic back in the first century, which was later set down in Greek. It is the story of the disciples telling Jesus, who loved them to the point of shedding his blood, that they will no longer remain with him.
Do you know this story? It is the famous Discourse on the Bread of Life, found in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter Six. An absolutely indispensable text in shaping the Church’s theology of the Eucharist, its importance simply cannot be exaggerated. Pull the plug on this passage and everything else in Christian belief, Christian practice, is no more than dust and ashes. Take it out, in other words, and you might as well shred the entire religion of Christianity into so many strips of cheap, unwanted paper.
What a chilling exchange it is, too, involving two entirely disparate sets of people. On one side there stand the Jews who, having just been told by Jesus that he is the Bread of Life come down from heaven, remain completely incredulous, blindsided by an announcement impossible for them to assimilate. “Is not this Jesus,” they ask, “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” How then can this man, a mere mortal, provide flesh for anyone to eat? The very idea strikes them as intrinsically absurd, revolting even. What manner of barbarity is this? Christ surely cannot expect them to descend to the level of cannibalism. And so murmuring their imprecations against him, they turn defiantly away.
Jesus, however, in the face of their rejection and the obvious revulsion his words arouse, repeats the same unspeakable message: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:53-55).
Now there is an icebreaker. Not only is it an absolutely astonishing assertion on the face of it, but to deliver it unedited to a bunch of pious first century Jews, who already know this guy as the son of an obscure carpenter named Joseph, well, it’s the sort of thing that people in padded cells could only believe. Can there be any wonder that Jesus should end up on a cross? What else do you do with someone who first tells you he’s God, then invites you to consume his flesh in order to live forever? Really, it is more than ordinary human flesh can possibly bear.
But it is the second group, drawn from Christ’s own circle, which is to say, the disciples themselves, whose rejection is the most painful of all. For these are members of the intimate household, as it were, telling him unmistakably what a “hard saying” it is. “Who,” they ask in honest disbelief, “can listen to it?” And so, as the Gospel tells us, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (Jn 6:66).
This is truly shocking. For here are men prepared to turn their backs on Christ forever because they cannot bring themselves to enter into this unheard of intimacy of communion with him. It is indeed the saddest story ever told. Yet how often we have heard this same anthem of rejection reverberate down the centuries by people unable to abide the plain words of Jesus Christ. Words which, to the ears of the faithful, sound the very depths of the faith we profess. These are people for whom certain canonical words constitute a sine qua non, without which nothing matters and nothing is true. Indeed, upon these words everything else depends. They provide the note of “incomprehensible certainty,” to quote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., that alone forges the essential link to a most sacredly terrifying chain of divine largess, stretching all the way up to God, yet now reaching down into the heart of this broken world so as to raise it to the dignity of a sacrament.
What we need is a renewed sense of scandal regarding this mystery. Think of it. Is it not the only instance in the world in which the Bread we eat changes us into God’s own reality, unlike quite ordinary bread that we take in and our bodies routinely absorb? Here we see—with the eyes of faith, that is—God freely lowering himself to the level of food, the actual molecular elements of bread and wine, in order that we might enter into his own impassible life, transported for a time to the very Precincts of Eternal Felicity. What else could account for Peter and the others choosing not to flee, but to cleave all the more closely to Christ? What possessed Peter, for instance, all at once to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ? His answer is wonderfully unambiguous. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6: 68).
It is Peter’s finest hour. And, come to think of it, if Christ wishes to reveal himself as food, hidden away beneath the accidents of a material world he made out of nothing (sustaining it, meanwhile, from moment to moment by his all-powerful Word), isn’t that God’s business? Our business is more modest: to believe and to obey. Accepting with complete and childlike confidence this amazing capacity of God to reach right down to the very bottom of being, if it pleases him, and there to reconfigure the whole sweep of the cosmos. It is with a sense of stunned gratitude, therefore, that we should approach the Altar where, all at once transubstantiated, bread and wine become God’s very Body and Blood.
And all because God allowed himself to be broken upon the terrible wheel of this world. And so he becomes our bread. We must not fall prey to the Calvinist conceit that the finite can never mediate the infinite (finitum capax non infiniti), which is an invitation to futility and despair. Or put it this way: if the vehicle of sacrament cannot carry the freight, will not bear the weight of God’s Word, then what are we doing wasting our time at the Altar? It was precisely this Protestant warhead, whose detonation five centuries ago brought to grief an entire Catholic world, nullifying at once all possibility of inscribing the material order with the language of sacrament, of signs capable of conveying the unseen grace of God himself.
In their sweeping dismissal of Catholic teaching on Real Presence, an entire order of human culture rooted in Eucharistic devotion was thrown over. The Reformers have very nearly succeeded in ridding the world of all evidence of the God-made flesh. God’s presence, they insisted, could only be that of pure spirit, unencumbered by any material or sensible connections at all. Contact with God was thereupon reduced to a mere whisper of memory lost amid the noise and clamor of human history. The presence finally of an absence. God could in no sense be Someone we might reach out to and touch, prostrating ourselves before him in profound adoration. Who in his right mind would kneel before a piece of bread and commence talking to it unless one was wholly convinced that it was God? Anything less is vaporous and unreal; it leaves the Godhead sequestered in some ethereal otherness beyond the reach of human and sacramental mediation. This is not the image of the Incarnate God found in the Scriptures. There is no percentage in a God lost in the ozone of pure abstraction; nor does it speak to the human heart, which longs for a God whose very transcendence includes touchability.
Who wants a God distant and withdrawn from the world he suffered to redeem? It would throw us into a circumstance of loneliness none of us were created to endure. So let us defend the truth about the Eucharist. Better yet, let us spend time before the Eucharist, which is the best and most convincing defense of all. For by our presence we testify to that most blessed of all presences, Jesus himself, from whom all that is good and holy has come into the world.
Editor’s note: The image above depicts Pope Francis carrying a monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament during the Corpus Christi observance May 30 in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)