In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today’s Gospel continues the Lord’s teaching from Saint John’s Gospel, which we have encountered over the past several weeks, about the Bread of Heaven, the food which endures to eternal life, which Jesus says is his flesh. The words of Jesus which we hear in today’s Gospel, he speaks in response to a question put by “the Jews” in the opening verses of today’s reading. They ask: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6.52).
The great Biblical commentator Theophylact says that the Body of Christ which we receive, “is not simply the flesh of man, but [the flesh] of God: and it makes man divine, by inebriating him, as it were, with divinity.” This is what we are after: being inebriated with divinity, and thereby being made divine. That is the whole purpose of the Incarnation of the eternal Word. As Saint Athanasius famously put it, the Word “was made man so that we might be made God” (De Incarn. 54.3).
We have seen that the effectual approach to receiving the Bread of Heaven, which is the body of Christ, is the approach of FAITH – of believing that Jesus is who he says he is, and that he has done what he said he would do. And we have seen that, as Saint Augustine puts it, faith works by love. “To believe in [Jesus means] believing to love [him], believing to honour Him, believing to go to Him, and to be made members incorporate of His Body. The faith which God requires of us, is that which works by LOVE.”
We may also see that a prerequisite of the faith that “works by love” – is humility. This should come as no surprise, as our approach to Christ – our LOVE of him – is elicited by his having first come to us in great humility, his having first LOVED us. Saint John says it explicitly: “We love, because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4.19).
The token of God’s love for us is the Incarnation of his only Son. How do we know that God loves us? Because Jesus Christ came into the world, “leaving” (so to speak) the transcendent domain of his Father, and taking to himself a bride – our nature, becoming frail flesh. This is an act of supreme humility, and it was undertaken out of nothing but love: because God looked with compassion on the human condition, the brokenness and confusion and futility of life in the world. God determined to fix it, and so he sent his Son, to live and die as one ofus – yet the only one of us who offered himself in every instant of his life, in perfect and loving devotion, to God.
Christ came to live and die as one of us, and to live and die in such a way that his life and death might become not only an exemplar or paradigm of virtue or righteousness – a pattern for us to imitate – but so that his life might become for us the dynamism that animates us. Christ came not only to show us how to live, but to live for us, within us, to give his life not only FOR US, but TO US, as something for us to take to ourselves, to internalize, such that it wells up within us, displacing everything broken, confused, and futile, and transforming us by degrees into his own likeness. This is why the Apostle Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2.20). Faith, working by love, leads to divine life. “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever” (John 6.58).
I would like to draw our attention to two important things with respect to receiving and feeding on the Body of Christ in faith and in love. And both are aspects of the humility that is required of us – the subsumption of our own will into the will of God in Christ.
As we have seen in the previous several weeks, we must give our lives to Christ in order for the gift of his life to be effectual within us. This means that we must allow ourselves – we must allow the pattern of our life – to be transformed, and to become divine. Saint Augustine says: “There are some who promise men deliverance from eternal punishment if they are washed in Baptism and partake of Christ’s Body, whatever lives they live. The Apostle [Paul] however contradicts them, where he says: ‘Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.’”
In order to receive the gift of divine life, to become subsumed into the very life of God, and so attain to peace and joy, we must GIVE OURSELVES to Christ. And this means leaving behind the life of the world – it means leaving behind every pattern of action that is informed by what is telluric, what belongs essentially to the earth. Why? Because the earth is temporal, and it, and every pattern of action that belongs to it, will perish.
Saint Peter says, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3.10). What will remain is that which belongs to heaven, and those who have been transformed by allowing their lives – the pattern of their actions – to be nourished, informed, and empowered by that which belongs essentially to heaven – “the Bread which came down from heaven.” And “He who eats this bread will live for ever.”
To be members of the Body of Christ must mean that the power at work in us – the dynamism which drives our action, which governs our lives and the very movement of our bodies – is the same power at work in Christ, namely the Holy Spirit of God. It is for this reason that what were once called “sins of the flesh” – the sins which we commit with our bodies – are particularly difficult impediments to the inheritance of the kingdom of God. Speaking of sins of the flesh, again, St. Paul says: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun sexual immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the sexually immoral man sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6.15ff).
So what we do with our bodies must be informed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the same dynamism informing the action of Christ in the flesh.
The second important element in receiving the Body of Christ, to which I would like to draw your attention, is what we might call the “ecumenical” element. Saint Augustine says, “Whereas men desire meat and drink to satisfy hunger and thirst, this effect is only really produced by that meat and drink, which makes the receivers of it immortal and incorruptible; i.e. [which makes them into] the society of Saints, where there is peace and unity, full and perfect. On which account our Lord has chosen for the types of His body and blood, things which become one out of many. Bread is a quantity of grains united into one mass, wine a quantity of grapes squeezed together.”
As we come to Christ and receive the flesh of the Son of Man, and as we thereby give ourselves to being transformed by God into the image of his Son, we find ourselves in close proximity to all those who likewise have come to Christ and who are being transformed into the form of his life. In short, when we become children of God – by being members of his Son – Christ himself becomes “the firstborn of many brethren” (Romans 8.29). In the Body of Christ, we become for the first time, brothers and sisters of one another.
This is part of the reason that the Lord chose the elements of bread and wine to perpetuate his presence among us, and to effect our reconciliation with God. In the case of bread, many grains of wheat are gathered out of the fields, and separated from the chaff – the useless husks. The grain is ground down, mixed with water, and put into a fire, until it becomes a single loaf. The spiritual symbolism of this should be manifest. And it is summed up in the words of the very ancient Eucharistic prayer which I mentioned several weeks ago: “As grain, once scattered on the hillsides was in this broken bread made one, so from all lands may thy Church be gathered into thy Kingdom by thy Son, for thine is the glory and the power, through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.”
To receive the Bread of Heaven without reference to the unity of the one Body of Christ, which is the Catholic Church – is a serious problem. This is the sacrament of unity, and I sincerely tremble at the presumption with which we receive it, in the midst of the reality of our separation from the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout the world.
This “is not simply the flesh of man, but [the flesh] of God: and it makes man divine, by inebriating him, as it were, with divinity.” Let us come to the Lord, but let us come in faith, remembering that faith works by love, and that love works by humility. Let us come resolute in putting off the works of the flesh, and every dissension, and renewed by the power of the Spirit. Let us come earnestly seeking the peace and unity of the one Body of Christ, the Una Sancta, for whom alone the Lord poured out his life (Ephesians 5.29-30).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.