The Bread of Life III – Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2012

How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

 

Many years ago, when I was a curate in Phibsborough, I remember visiting an elderly English couple on the parish list. As with so many of the English, they had very little acquaintance with the Church; and I remember the old man telling me how he couldn’t be having with all that talk of eating body and blood. Those of us who are immersed in Church use that sort of language almost without noticing how strange it is; we might be at a loss to quite explain what it means, but we certainly don’t experience it as cannibalism. There is a great gulf of language between believers and unbelievers. It is not merely that either side finds the other incredible; very often they find each other incomprehensible. One can’t understand; the other can’t explain.

 

In John’s Gospel Jesus very often comes out with statements that get taken up wrongly, so that he has to go back and explain them. A good example is when he tells Nicodemus “You must be born again”, and Nicodemus says, “How can you go back into your mother’s womb?” Of course that’s not what Jesus means – silly Nicodemus – and so he goes on to talk about new birth into new life and so on. Similarly in today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”, and the audience instantly jump to the surface – and silly – meaning: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Euww. And again Jesus goes on to spell out what he’s talking about.

 

Perhaps it’s a good strategy for getting people thinking and looking for deeper meanings, but could he not have been more straightforward and direct?  Why all the imagery and parable and symbolism? So much of religious discourse uses the language of image and parable and symbol. Why?

 

One reason is that we cannot speak of God in any other way. The commandment not to make graven images applies to words as much as to statues and paintings. Our language, like our art, can point to God, but cannot capture his reality, cannot comprehend him in his fullness. There is a spiritual tradition that says we can only talk of God by saying what he is not. So indirect, imaginative, story-language is probably our best way of trying to convey what is beyond our minds and our words.

 

Another reason for using image language is that this is what we always do when we are talking about persons rather than things. Certain aspects of us are amenable to science with its emphasis on measuring things – certain aspects of us can be conveyed by means of vital statistics. But the really personal things – awareness, emotion, relationships – requires a different sort of language, often that of poetry and drama. And while we can bring our intellect to bear on, say, a poem, and try to analyse it, and work out what each word means, and all the techniques of rhyme and rhythm – all the sort of things we tried to do at school – nonetheless these are only tools to help us get the most out of the poem. Knowing all those things is not the same as experiencing the poem, or enjoying it, or relating it to our own experiences. And of course one of the great things about studying literature is that as we get older and have lived more we find the words mean more to us.

 

 

Our gospel today is full of image language, because we are talking about divine things and about personal things: about being held in communion with God, and finding our true life in relationship with Jesus. To eat Jesus’ flesh and blood is to be dependent on his life for our life. We could spend a long time exploring various aspects of this imagery – incarnation, sacrifice – but as with all such language, this is not merely something to be dissected by the intellect but experienced in the heart. In our Old Testament reading Lady Wisdom invites us to her banquet, to taste the bread and wine she has prepared, so that we may become wise and live fully. Again, that is image language inviting us to “taste and see”, to try out for ourselves, whether or not true life is to be found at Wisdom’s table, in relation to Jesus. We naturally read these words in the sacramental light of the Holy Communion. Here again, symbolic actions, material things, convey something both divine and personal. The Communion is always about a personal encounter of dependence on God; an open-ness to letting his life be our life.

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