Jesus is the source of life, sustenance

  • May 21, 2008

Body and Blood of Christ (Year A) May 25 (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16; Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-59)

Meeting the demands of hunger and thirst is the most basic of human drives. Physical survival must be ensured before people turn to those things we consider of a higher nature: self-expression, society, culture, the quest for knowledge and so on. And yet there seems to be a problem right from the beginning of human history as recorded in the Bible. Humans allow hunger and thirst — the basic drives of life — to crowd out and obliterate their relationship with God.

The source of the rebellion of the Israelites in the desert is fear — fear of perishing due to lack of food and water. This leads them not only into rebellion, but idolatry — viewed as the most heinous sin in the biblical tradition. According to the theology of Deuteronomy’s author, the whole purpose of the gruelling sojourn in the wilderness was to teach Israel that God alone was her protector and sustainer. Israel had to learn (as we all do) to trust God completely and to trust and support one another.

Being humbled does not mean being broken and crushed, but acknowledging the complete mastery of God and the truth of God’s teachings. Relinquishing control is never easy, and everything in our human psychological makeup cries out against it. We notice that the Deuteronomist does not deny the importance of meeting life’s basic needs — this is not some sort of unrealistic other-worldly spirituality. It is not by bread alone that humans live, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. “Word” is never understood in the Old Testament as the written text, but the creative will, expression and energy of God. It is embodied in God’s saving deeds in history, in the proclamations of Israel’s prophets and teachers and in the Torah or teaching of God itself.

Fear of lack drives so much of the world’s competition and violence. Ironically, much of what we consider the absolute necessities of life is not indispensable. Food and water, as well as other resources, exist in abundance but are distributed with the largesse of an absolute miser. The real lack is that of generosity and compassion. What sort of lesson will humanity need to learn that God alone is our provider and can be trusted? God must always be a conscious and deliberate presence in all human activity and lip-service or “God-talk” is not sufficient.

The thought of eating human flesh and drinking human blood is abhorrent in most times and cultures. We can imagine the effect on those listening to Jesus’ insistence that His followers were to eat His body and drink His blood. It is deliberate shock language, and as is the case throughout John’s Gospel, is meant in a symbolic and metaphorical sense, conveying a higher spiritual truth. Jesus is stating that He is now the source of life and sustenance, just as the God of Israel was in the wilderness journey. He can impart a state of permanence to the believer, a form of life that never diminishes or fails. This is another way of saying that He imparts the divine life itself, that we can actually partake of the divine nature. It is not something that is mechanical or magical, and we should avoid this type of understanding.

This sharing in the divine nature can only be accomplished when it is done in the mind and heart of Christ. This is best expressed by John’s focus on love as the means of abiding in Christ. It is also not something accomplished in solitude — Paul emphasizes this partaking of divinity as a process of both sharing and becoming. Those participating in the sacred meal of the Eucharist share in the divine life force of Christ. They become part of His body as well as part of creation and of one another. The real presence is something that exists not only in the elements of the bread and wine but in the minds and hearts of those gathered around the table in the Lord’s name.

How can we determine if a community has truly shared in the divine nature? The communal “real presence” is not difficult to measure. The degree of hatred or love, harshness or compassion, resentment or forgiveness and selfishness or generosity is a good indicator of the amount of transformation or divinization that has taken place.