The Body and Blood of Christ – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, she/he shall live forever.” John 6, 51-58
“Go in peace, glorifying God by your life!” Dismissal blessing at the end of Mass

On this Sunday’s celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are invited to reflect on the place of Eucharist in our lives, giving attention to what we are about when we “go to Mass”, and how that relates to everything we do as the rest of our week unfolds. Today our gospel reading again comes from John, the last we will hear from him until the Third Sunday of Advent in December.

In the Church I go to in Rome, the priest invariably concludes the Mass with the blessing: “Go in peace, glorifying God by your Life!” That blessing is a reminder that the Eucharist in which I have just participated is meant to continue somehow in everything that I say and do until I go to Mass again. What, I ask myself, does that really mean? And how do I go about doing what that dismissal blessing urges me to do?

Let’s begin that exploration by reflecting on today’s gospel reading. Aware that it come’s from John’s Gospel, let’s remember that we are once again engaging with the language of metaphor and symbol. John presents a picture of Jesus engaging with people who knew well the language of symbol and metaphor. So, when Jesus started to talk about bread, blood, “bread that came down from heaven”, flesh and food, many in his audience would have begun to think about blood sprinkled on doorposts at the time of the Exodus and the manna in the desert that saved their wandering ancestors from starvation. All this language about food, blood and flesh captured symbols of what Jewish people understood as God’s love for them that had been expressed repeatedly throughout their long history. So, when they heard Jesus speaking of himself as “the bread of life” and “living bread”, they would have heard him telling them that he, too, just like the manna in the desert, was a living expression of God’s love for them. Those who could not accept that message ignored his language of symbols and chose to interpret him literally, protesting that they would be cannibals if they tried to eat his flesh and drink the blood coursing through his veins. They could not or would not accept that the man in front of them could teach them or demonstrate to them anything about God’s love for them. They could not accept that “feeding on his message” would lead them to God and would help them to love and care for one another. The more comfortable option was to walk away. That’s what many of us are tempted to do whenever we are challenged.

When we celebrate Eucharist, we engage with the love of God made visible in Jesus. By responding to the readings we hear, we affirm that we intend to act them out in the way we live. Remember, we are always invited to engage with the readings not as spectators but as participants. What’s more, I will never tire of reminding myself and others that, when we participate in Eucharist and receive communion, we do well to remember that, in holding the communion bread in front of us, the priest is really saying: “Behold who you are, become what you receive” – recognise that you are the body of Christ; become Jesus, the love of God for your world! St Augustine said those words to everyone who came to him to receive communion, and he urged his fellow priests to do likewise.

Paul spells out the same thing in today’s second reading from Corinthians: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10, 16) The significant word, of course, is “participation”. By presenting ourselves to be nourished by Christ’s body and blood, we are accepting his invitation to live as he lived, to love as he loved. We are, indeed, his sacraments, and we give expression to his love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy and affirmation whenever we accept that dismissal invitation: “Go in peace, glorifying God by your life!”

Participating as fully as we can in Eucharist, glorifying God by our lives means reaching out in love, respect and care for everyone we encounter, for all, like us, are made in the image of God. They, like us, reflect something of the goodness and love of God, irrespective of their social status, race, religion or sexual orientation. However, recent Popes especially John-Paul II and, currently, Pope Francis have reminded us that the earth, our common home, is also a sacrament of the love, goodness and beauty of God. So, participating in Eucharist also means glorifying God by the way in which we engage with the whole of creation.

On the World Day of Peace (1st January 1990), John Paul II issued a message entitled The Ecological Crisis: A Common responsibility. In it he stated: “Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends to the rest of creation. If nature is the new poor, then the Christian mandate of option for the poor and oppressed now includes the natural world. If we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, then the range of neighbours now includes the whale, the monarch butterfly, the local lake, the entire community of life. If the common good requires solidarity with all who suffer, then our compassion extends to suffering human beings and other species caught in patterns of extinction. Save the rainforest becomes a concrete moral application of the commandment: Thou shalt not kill. This, in turn, requires us to realise the deep connections between social injustice and ecological devastation. Ravaging of the people and of the land go hand in hand. To be deeply true, prophetic action must not get caught in the trap of pitting social justice issues against issues of ecological health, but must include commitment to ecological wholeness within the struggle for a more just social order. We all share the status of creaturehood; we are all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege. A vision of justice as cosmic justice is the only adequate option.”

Accepting the invitation to participate in Eucharist and to step out, glorifying God by our lives has far-reaching implications. Perhaps the best place to begin is in our own place of residence, our own backyard, and then to expand outward. The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins proclaimed: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” (sonnet entitled God’s Grandeur). To hear that is one thing, but to take time to notice requires conscious effort. To open our eyes to our immediate surrounds is to get in touch with the sacrament of God’s creation. In this context, I am reminded of a comment by the 19th century Swiss geologist, Jean Louis Agassiz: “I spent the summer travelling; I got half-way across my backyard!” If we were to do nothing more than spend the next few weeks exploring our backyards, making meaning of how Eucharist fits into our lives, and articulating for ourselves what glorifying God in our life actually looks like, our lived understanding of Eucharist would surely be enriched, and we would then dare to be bread broken and wine poured out for our broken world.