Pondering Jesus’ Victorious Word on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“Jesus said to the crowds:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats (φάγῃ, phage) this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat (φαγεῖν, phagein)?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat (φάγητε, phagete) the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats (τρώγων, trogon) my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats (τρώγων, trogon) my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on (τρώγων, trogon) me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats (τρώγων, trogon) this bread will live forever.””

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

After much teaching and debating with the crowd, Jesus sounds a clear, blunt and forceful command that carries an equally clear admonition: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat (φάγητε, phagete) the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” In an unambiguous way, Jesus commands the very eating of His Flesh and the drinking of His Blood, actions that would have been abhorrent to the Jewish crowd of the first century as well as an offense to the sensibilities of many people then and now. So why does Jesus of Nazareth, Himself a devout and faithful Jew, command a non-kosher and rather barbaric action? A response (emphasis on A) lies in the very creation of humanity expressed in Genesis.

In the Creation Account, we learn via the dialog between Eve and the Serpent that humanity lives within boundaries, a characteristic of all created reality. Humanity, for example, is not given carte blanche to eat anything in the Garden: a particular tree is not to be touched and its fruit is not to be eaten. Boundaries are placed on what humanity can and cannot consume in the Garden. While Eve may not know the exact reason why the fruit is prohibited, she knows that the fruit is forbidden.

(As a brief aside, this food prohibition is not whimsical nor capricious on the part of God nor are any of the episodes of this Sacred Account of the Beginnings to be casually declared ‘just a story’ that can be dismissed because ‘we know better.’ We don’t. There is much bound with the tree, the fruit and the entire Garden experience that is crucial for grasping what it means to be created in the “image and likeness of God.” Being created “in the image and likeness of God” has implications not only for the rest of Creation, but for the relationship of God of humanity.)

So long as humanity listened to the voice of God alone and went about the work entrusted to them, Genesis contends that Divine Harmony - Original Justice - flourished. But when humanity choose to listen to another and to grasp (as opposed to receiving graciously) for that which Divinity forbade, life took a noticeable turn, to say the least and the relationship that humanity enjoyed with God changed utterly. That which was forbidden (for our own good) was not only grasped and taken but even more so, consumed. Eve, Adam, and the whole of humanity were filled with shame and alienated from the Loving God because the command “Do not eat!” was ignored.

Out of love, the Creator sounded the ‘first Gospel (known by the Fathers of the Church as the Protoevangelium, [Genesis 3:15])’ and promised healing. The rupture, grave in and of itself, became inextricably bound to our nature because we not only touched but consumed a reality that severely damaged our capacity to relate genuinely and authentically to God, others, the true self and all creation. Healing, promised by God and implicitly desired by humanity, needed to be applied to the root of the ailment which in this case involved listening to another instead of the One Creator (cf Dt 6:4-9, the great prayer of Israel known as the Shema), touching and ingesting a toxin that radically altered the privileged relationship that humanity enjoyed with God. As the healing work began to unfold, the Divine Word drew humanity step by step into a closer relationship (Abraham, for example) and fed humanity in such a way to grow more selfless (covenant meals of hospitality, for example) and free (Passover Meal, for example).

“In the fullness of time …” as Saint Paul pens, God the Father sends Jesus His Son, the Word to bring this healing to fulfillment. Throughout His Public Ministry, Jesus calls humanity to listen to what He has heard from His Father. He often touches humanity to bring about healing of body and soul and in the episode proclaimed this weekend, He commands the very consumption of Himself to combat the ingested toxin of the Garden.

But what kind of eating does Jesus mean? It is an important question because the Evangelist John employs two distinct Greek verbs in this Sunday’s proclamation - and both of them are translated into English as “to eat.” In the first part of this Sunday’s pericope, the Greek verb φάγω (phago) is used. φάγω (phago) refers to a physical act of eating and it is the verb used to translate the Hebrew אָכַל (ʾakal) that appears in Genesis 3. אָכַל (ʾakal), while its primary meaning and principle usage is the physical act of ‘food into mouth,’ it can refer – on occasion – to a metaphoric or poetic ‘eating’ that is akin to ‘taking in a lesson or a message.’ The Greek φάγω (phago) functions in a similar way. Most of the time, φάγω (phago) refers to the physical act of eating but on occasion can refer to a metaphoric, poetic or idiomatic ‘eating,’ such as the saying in the American usage of English, ‘I could eat my words.’

But then there is matter of the other verb in Greek that is translated into English “to eat,” the Greek verb τρώγω (trogo). In antiquity this verb did not specifically refer to the action of eating but also how one ate: gnawing and chewing … and the gnawing and chewing were often accompanied by guttural sounds and monosyllabic grunts and groans. In other words, τρώγω (trogo) describes an exceptionally graphic action, often used to depict how animals and barbarians ate - not the way our moms and dads taught us to eat and behave at the supper table! τρώγω (trogo) functions here TO REMOVE any hint or suggestion that Jesus is speaking about a metaphoric, poetic or solely spiritual eating. The action is physical. The action is also quite messy – AND – it points directly to the Cross. The only way that anyone can consume the flesh and blood of a living being is for that living being to be dead. Jesus’ command “to eat” and “to eat” in a specific way: τρώγω (trogo) is a declaration of giving Himself completely in fidelity to the Father’s Will that results in His Sacrifice on the Cross that we may live fully.

Thus the “do not eat” of Genesis is replaced by Jesus’ command “to eat” and “to eat” in a very particular way: τρώγω (trogo). Biblically, this is a significant Sacred Text in the Church’s teaching of Jesus’ Real Presence. At the Easter Vigil in the Diocese of Hippo some 1600 years ago, Saint Augustine addressed the newly Baptized and Confirmed prior to the reception of Holy Communion for the first time, “Become Who you consume.” In the Garden, our nature ingested a poison; our nature welcomed sin into our very being – not just into our spiritual nature, our physical nature as well. We are in need of an antidote for the ingested poison: spiritually and physically (sacramentally). No wonder that Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Gregory of Nyssa referred to the Holy Eucharist as a Sacred Drug! Saint Ignatius wrote of the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality” and Saint Gregory wrote of the Eucharist as the antidote for poison of sin swirling around in our souls and bodies.

Graciously coming before our Lord, receiving (not taking) with hearts open to His Real Presence is our healing and our strength for the journey - a healing that we can receive no where else and from no one else.

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