Over 50 years ago, in 1967, the Oxford University Students Union held its first debate to be nationally televised on BBC. It caused quite a stir at the time and upset many Catholics. The motion was “The Roman Catholic Church has no place in the Twentieth Century”.

The Reverend Ian Paisley, then a young firebrand preacher and not the ‘gentle’ politician he became in his later years, spoke for the motion. The then well-known Catholic MP Norman St-John Stevas spoke against it. (This is the same Norman who gave Margaret Thatcher the ‘Prayer of St Francis’ to read aloud to the media when she was entering 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time in 1979.)

While he was proposing the motion against the Church – which, over the years, he was fond of calling the ‘Whore of Babylon’ led by the Anti-Christ – Paisley held up a large Communion wafer and mockingly declared: “This wafer, after it is consecrated, the Church of Rome teaches is the actual body, bones, blood, hair and fingernails of Jesus Christ… ’

The declaration drew laughter from the students but many Catholics at the time, who watched the debate ‘live’ on TV, were shocked by what Paisley had done.  (You can watch this section of the debate on Youtube.) He had, in crude terms, belittled what many Catholics at the time believed to be sacred and literally true i.e. that when you receive Holy Communion in Mass you really are eating the ‘flesh’ and drinking the ‘blood’ of Jesus.

Fifty years later, thanks to Scriptural research being more widely available to all Catholics, we have a better understanding of what Our Lord meant in today’s Gospel by using the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’. We know now, for instance, that these words are not to be taken on a literal level.  We know too that the literal drinking of blood was prohibited in Judaism. So Our Lord’s reference to eating his ‘flesh’ and drinking his ‘blood’ could not be meant by him at the time to be taken literally. The same applies to when he said’ if your right hand causes you to sin, chop it off …’

The Hebrew phrase ‘flesh and blood’ refers to the whole person – not just the physical – but the entire person. So when Our Lord said at the Last Supper ‘this is my body … this is my blood’ he was referring to his entire being and not, as Paisley said, ‘his ‘bones, blood, hair and fingernails’. The same holds true with the reference to ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ in today’s Gospel.

When Jesus first spoke these words to fellow Jews, he was then claiming that He, and no longer the Mosaic Law, was the means for people to have an eternal loving relationship with God (‘eternal life’). He, not the Law, he said, was the ‘bread come down from heaven’, the means now used by God to draw all people, not just Jews, into ‘eternal life’.

By the time John’s Gospel was been written – up to 70 years after Jesus lived – the emphasis in Our Lord’s words had changed.  The phrases of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood had become a common way for Christians to describe taking part in the Eucharist. So the Lord’s teaching by this time was primarily to emphasise how He, the Bread come down from heaven, was truly present among his people when they celebrated Mass. In this way people could fully encounter the Risen Christ, the Food of Life, and become fully in union with Him.

So just to be clear, especially for those of us who were taught in our youth to take Our Lord’s words literally: when we consume the bread and wine after they have been consecrated at Mass, we are not ‘eating’ the physical person of Jesus who died on the Cross. Rather, we are in communion with the Divine Jesus, the Risen Christ who is ‘now seated at the right hand of the Father’. In the Mass the Risen Lord comes to us in the form of food but to us, in faith, is much, much more.

Today’s Communion hymn is a prayer of adoration to the Risen Lord in the Eucharist. It gives Him the titles ‘Bread of Heaven’, ‘Bond of Love’ and ‘Food of Life’, coming to us under the ‘veil’ or form of bread and wine. This food gives us the ‘pledge of immortality’, an eternal life of love with God. The hymn ends with the consoling thought that the Lord who gave his life for us on earth will, surely, not ‘deny’ us ‘heaven’.

In summary:

Jesus says He is the Way to an everlasting relationship of love with God the Father. He is, in the words of the First Reading, the ‘Wisdom’ of God inviting us to participate in the ‘Banquet’ of Eternal Life. In the Eucharist we enter into a full communion with him and through Him we have the deepest union with God the Father that’s possible on this earth.

Through him, and with him, and in him,
O God, almighty Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honour is yours,
for ever and ever.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 August 2018