Jesus must have known what sensitivities he’d be trampling on whenever he spoke of giving his flesh to be eaten and his blood to be drunk. Not only did those words unavoidably suggest cannibalism; but they also stood in flagrant contradiction to the centuries-old condemnation of any such practice by the sacred law of Moses.
The Jews were convinced that they were divinely destined to be different in their moral values — different from all other tribes and nations around them. Therefore, they could have no part in the abominations that were customary among other peoples.
Eating non-kosher meat and drinking blood were two practices that were associated with pagan worship and expressly forbidden by the Mosaic law. Faithfully observant Jew that Jesus was, he knew full well what binding prohibitions these were in the religion he had practiced all his life. We can only imagine, then, how shocking and revolting it was to his fellow Jews to hear of his intention to give them his flesh to eat and his blood to drink. This was deeply disturbing to them, not only because it sounded like cannibalism, but also because it was a bold and unacceptable affront to the most sacred law of the prophet Moses.
This wasn’t the first or the last time that Jesus knowingly upset his followers and risked losing many of them — risked losing his own life as well. He was using powerful expressions that would sear and burn, that would cause debate and division. He was making unforgettable proclamations of a message so shattering in its radical newness as to be never surpassed. He was initiating a whole new order of life, a new relationship between the human race and God.
By choosing, as he did, the familiar images of eating and drinking when he spoke about the relationship between himself and us, Jesus was calling our attention to some vital components of human life. First was that most fundamental of all desires, simply to stay alive and to keep on living. The second was hunger — physical hunger for food, the hunger for love and unity and happiness and pleasure. And third, the hunger to fulfill our nature, our individual personhood — “to be someone” and all that we can be, all that we want to be.
Jesus concludes his thus-far troubling lesson by saying that we can fully satisfy all our hungers, all our desires, through him. He claims to be our total food, our life-giver and sustainer. To know him, to receive him eagerly into our lives as the complete food that satisfies every honorable hunger, is to enjoy a relationship with God of a kind never before attainable.
The bread and wine of Eucharist are appropriate symbols for the sacrament, of which unity is a major theme. The bread is made of countless grains of wheat, no two exactly alike, yet forming one whole loaf. It is broken, as we are so often by the cares of our lives. The wine begins with the crushing of grapes, as we are crushed by the burdens we inevitably carry. Jesus promises to heal us, to make our worrying unnecessary, if we feed on him in faith and trust. He calls us, different as we are from each other, to become harmoniously one in our families and communities, our cities, our world. Eat of me, he says, and, I promise you, you will be one.
We must admit that we barely understand and so little appreciate what it is we are invited to accept in Eucharistic Communion. But for more than 2,000 years Christians have found God, themselves and each other in the mystery that lies at the heart of it. It just may be that we need to give a bit more thought to what we are doing — or to what he is doing.