I hope it’s fairly obvious to us that when Jesus talks about us eating his flesh in the Gospel today he does not mean it literally. (John 6:51-58) We know that he is teaching how he will be really and fully present for us in Holy Communion, not suggesting that we become cannibals! So he actually ignores the stupid question posed about him “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”, because it is so obviously silly. In another place Jesus actually quotes from the prophet Isaiah about the way some people will see without understanding because they are stuck looking at the surface of things, and are not prepared to think about things in a deeper way.
This deeper and more imaginative way of expressing ourselves is not just reserved to religious things of course. If I’m in the middle of a lovely meal but am looking sad, my host might ask me if I’m alright. In reply, I might say “Oh sorry, but I’m just fed up!” Now when I am sad I tend to eat, so I would be quite annoyed if my host, hearing me say I was fed up, took me literally and took the rest of the food away from me. We use such expressions all the time. I might have said “I am heartbroken” and been startled if someone called an ambulance. Nowadays people (especially young people) say they are “cool” to sort of mean they are happy – at least I think that’s what they mean – but when I first heard this expression used, I must admit I wondered what they were talking about!
Right through Christian history there have been some people who make this mistake about the Bible stories and the teaching of the Church. In the 13th Century the great theologian St Thomas Aquinas had to deal with many people who thought that the presence of Christ in the bread of Holy Communion was his actual flesh. In order to explain what Jesus really meant, Aquinas used the philosophical terms of his age, in which the “accidents” were the bread’s outward form and the “substance” was the bread’s inner reality. Following him, the Church has always taught that it is the substance of the bread that changes at Mass, that is the inner reality, whilst the accidents, the outward form does not change.
St Paul warns us in our 2nd Reading (Eph 5:15-20) not to be “thoughtless”. In other words, not to live our life on the surface but to perceive the presence of God not just when we gather to pray, but in every aspect of life. That’s why he tells us not just to sing when we’re in church but, as he writes, to “Go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God.”
I heard the British astronaut Tim Peake being interviewed on the Radio recently, and I was horrified to hear the interviewer assuming that you either had to look at the world in a scientific way or in a religious way. He seemed to assume that unless the presence of God as the creator of the Universe could one day be discovered scientifically, then it couldn’t be true.
Like an astronaut looking at the beauty of the Universe from space, we too can see the world in more than one way. If I were a scientist, I could look at a beautiful sunset and explain in great detail what is taking place. I could talk about the way the different layers of the earth’s atmosphere combined with certain weather conditions creates the amazing and ever changing reds and golds that sometimes occur as the sun goes down. But that rather ordinary way of looking at beauty wouldn’t be sufficient would it? It would be like looking at a great painting, and just examining the paint’s chemical composition, or hearing a great piece of music and just examining how the sound waves reach our ears. No. There are deeper levels to be expressed here, ways of talking about our world and us that convey a greater truth, a truth that is almost beyond words.
Once a rather stupid priest gave up being a priest because he couldn’t understand or explain what he was doing when he said the words of Jesus over the bread and wine. We heard in our 1st Reading (Proverbs 9:1-6) that true wisdom requires us “To walk in the ways of perception.” To think that we can ever understand the mysteries of beauty in the world, or in art or in music, or to think that we can ever understand what human love is. This is to be very stupid indeed. For us believers, all these things and more are ways in which we perceive the mystery of God. God’s presence is always beyond our understanding, and so when Jesus promises to give himself to us in a wonderful way when the bread is blessed and broken, we have to realise that we are proclaiming that there is more to the world than its outward form, and to praise God for his mysterious Presence with us and for us.