Words are powerful! As kids, we had some little rhymes to protect us from mean words. “I’m rubber and you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!” “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” For good reason, we try to convince our children that the mean words others may say to them are “just words,” and can’t hurt them. But as we grow up, we realize how powerful words can be. Now we say, “The pen is mightier than the sword!” We know that words are powerful.
After all, when God speaks, His word touches nothingness and being unfolds. The beginning of Scripture gives us the image that God spoke creation into being. He did not have to struggle with other divine or demonic forces to overcome their plans and to establish His own will. He merely spoke, and His words overcame the darkness.
And so the words spoken by Jesus have the same power. He Himself says that His words are Spirit and Life. Peter acknowledges that they have nowhere else to go, because Jesus has the words of everlasting life. I even just read recently that St. Thomas Aquinas suggested that when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He called him by name specifically, because otherwise all the dead that heard His voice would have been raised—it’s just that powerful.
So the words that Jesus Himself uses are important. One of the greatest hidden secrets of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is when Jesus starts talking about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Of course this sounds so bizarre! It was especially strange to the people who were listening to Him that day. Jesus said: “I AM the living bread that came down from heaven; who ever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” This sounds so strange to the Jews who were listening to Him that day that it says, “They quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’” Whenever it says that the Jews quarreled or that they murmured during this chapter, it calls to mind the ways they quarreled and murmured in the desert before, when God had freed them from Egypt. Just like the unfaithful ones among them doubted God before when He gave them the Manna, so they are doing it again when Jesus gives them the true bread from heaven.
I mean, after all, this all sounds so very strange. The Jews had very strict rules, as we do still today thankfully, against eating the flesh of another human being. And they weren’t allowed to drink the blood of any animal either. So for Jesus to say these things was a clear violation of the Law that made them God’s beloved people. So when His own disciples began to leave, you would think that maybe Jesus would want to clarify. Maybe He would say something like: “Oh no, that’s not what I meant at all. I meant it as a symbol, metaphorically!” Instead, what Jesus does is to become even more serious and uses the image of eating even more concretely.
The reality of the Eucharist as the Body of Christ lies in these next few verses. And it’s hidden beneath the translation into the languages we understand. The Gospels were originally written in Greek, so there are some things hidden from us, that only those who know Greek would recognize. One of those hidden things is right here in John 6, especially beginning in verses 49-50 Jesus says, “Your fathers, who ate manna in the desert, died nonetheless; the bread which comes down from heaven is such that he who eats of it never dies.” To describe this action of eating, Jesus uses the greek word phagēi, which is typically used just to describe regular eating. But when the Jews quarrel amongst themselves, and challenge Jesus to clarify, instead of backing off, Jesus doubles down. He says in verse 59, “Such is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not as it was with your fathers, who ate manna and died none the less; the man who eats this bread will live eternally.” He describes the eating of the Manna by the Israelite in the desert using a simple verb form of the word phagēi. But then to describe the eating of His flesh, He uses a more complex verb form of the Greek word trōgōn, which means more like the gnawing of an animal. It also in its more complex verb form describes the action as a characteristic of the people who do it. Eating the Body of Christ is not just something we do, it’s something we become. So, again, instead of backing off and explaining away His language as metaphorical, Jesus doubles down and makes it more real and more gritty. But more important that anything else here: we don’t just receive the Body of Christ. We become the Body of Christ.
It’s like the beautiful words of St. Augustine: “I heard Your voice from on high. "I am the food of the fully grown. Grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change Me into you, like the food of flesh eats. But you will be changed into Me.”
The Eucharist, as Jesus Himself tells us, changes us. It transforms us. It can make everything in us new. All by the words of Spirit and Life, the words of Everlasting Life, that Jesus the Priest speaks whenever we come to the altar.