I was reminded how strange Christianity is a couple years ago while serving the cup at Communion. As I repeated the familiar words about the blood of Christ, a boy who was there with his mom looked up at her in shock and asked repeatedly, “Mom, is that blood? Mom, is that blood?”
Was this what Jesus’ audience heard when he said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53)?
It would be superficial of me to lump Jesus’ listeners together with that little boy. For he was only shocked and puzzled; Jesus’ listeners were downright disgusted with his quasi-cannibalistic language that in any case implied a demand just as repulsive. That demand was a radical call to discipleship under Jesus, who was leading his disciples to the Cross, indeed to carry their own crosses.
St. Paul puts the demand in his own way, and then spells it out afterwards. He writes, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). What he goes on to spell out is the sacrifice involved in remaining “one body,” sharing and constituted by “one loaf.” The freedom of the strong is to be sacrificed on behalf of the weak. Paul could say this, and yet his parishioners were divided between rich and poor.
“Is Christ divided?” he asks (1 Cor. 1:13).
Precisely because the bread and the wine are a real “participation” in the divine life of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), the Eucharist carries a promise and a risk. The promise, Jesus says, is that “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:51). The risk, as Moses says, is that “God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24), and either we consume him, recognizing him in the bread and in the gathered community, or he consumes us. Either we consume him, or he consumes us. So when Paul heard about Christians “biting and devouring each other” (Gal. 5:15), he put two and two together to conclude that “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). As they consumed each other, God was consuming their church, reducing it to ash.
In the Bible eating and drinking have layer upon layer of meaning, and Paul exploits this. There’s the story of Israelites weary of waiting for their prophet to return from Sinai: they fashioned a golden calf to worship with a meal. “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry”: that is St. Paul quoting the story of Exodus 32:6 (see 1 Cor. 10:7). But when Moses returned to find his people cheating on God, he ground up the idol, scattered the ashes in a stream, and made the people drink the bitter waters. Moses later writes, “May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries” (Num. 5:22).
This disease of spiritual “consumption” — of wasting away — is not, however, where God wants to leave us. God may be a consuming fire, but Jesus “ate ashes like bread, and mingled his drink with weeping” for our sake (Ps. 102:9). At this point we pass from the consuming fire of God’s justice to the consuming fire of his mercy. For Christ came to consume us with his love so that we can consume him. He came to consume our humanity so that we can consume his divinity. He came to consume our sin so that we can consume his righteousness. Seeing us wasting away, he came to drink the bitter gall of our sins and divisions to its very dregs. That’s what seems to be going on when Christ quenches his thirst with the sponge full of wine on the cross (Matt. 27:49; John 19:28-30).
The fact that Jesus talks about the Eucharist in the bizarre terms of cannibalism is offensive. That’s because bearing and sustaining life is a bloody and costly affair. From the womb to the tomb human life is sustained by the sacrifice of others: mothers, fathers, friends, neighbors; and in the Church of Christ all the more so, where rich give themselves for the poor, the free for the slaves, the wise for the foolish, bishops and priests for their people.
In the Eucharist we consume Christ’s light and life. But we also consume our vocation, we receive our vocation, which is to be light and life. That vocation turns some people’s stomachs. And yet for those consumed by the fire of God’s love the possibility of becoming like God himself is so captivating that they would gladly be reduced to dust and ashes for the sake of the Church and the world. My hope for Anglicans is that we all be captivated by this calling.
Jeff Boldt is a doctoral candidate in theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and a postulant in the Diocese of Toronto. His other posts are here.
The featured image comes via Catholic Craving.