For the second time in my life, at least since I am old enough to appreciate it, I am not going to school at this time of year. Let me tell you, it’s pretty awesome. I’m excited, yes, that I don’t have to go to school, and every evening that I realize I don’t have to do homework helps me appreciate that more and more. But I’m also excited at what sort of opportunities the year brings. It gives me a unique opportunity to teach and share about my faith, and in all sorts of ways. Last year, I had an opportunity to take some of the little kids on a tour of the church (pre-K, K, 2nd grade, I don’t remember). I’m not going to lie, that is a tough thing to do. They have an attention span of just about as far as I could throw my Volkswagen. But I took them to the sacristy, and showed them the bread and wine that we use for Mass, and I explained that while it’s bread and wine now, it turns into the body and blood of Jesus. And what did they say? “Ewwww! Gross!” How do you explain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to a 4 year old? Honestly, how do you explain the real presence of Christ to a 20 or 40 or 60 year old?
Those children thought I meant that we’d be eating Jesus’ body parts – his arms and legs, his fingers, his hair, all that. And honestly, it seems silly, but it’s an excellent question. If this is truly the body and blood of Jesus, does that make us cannibals? This isn’t just a question for Kindergartners either! Some fundamental Protestants charge us with the same thing. And for that matter, the Romans as well. They actually arrested Christians in the Early Church on the charge of defiling corpses or of cannibalism – because of a misinterpretation of the Eucharist. And they weren’t even the first ones – the people in the Gospel today were confused as well!
Honestly, it’s a struggle to explain this truth of our Catholic faith to others. When talking to Kindergartners, you try to simplify things down to what they can understand. The natural inclination would be to say, “No, it’s not his real body and blood, it’s just a symbol!” But was Jesus using a symbol? Was he speaking in metaphors? Let’s take a look-see.
First, look at the reaction of these people – they are completely outraged! They just cannot fathom what Jesus is trying to explain to them. Have we ever seen this before? When Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” were people outraged? “How can this man claim to be a plant!!!” No, of course not. Something is different here. When these people get upset, Jesus doesn’t backtrack, but in fact, digs in even more. Before, he was using the Greek word phago, which means simply “to eat.” But after they get upset, and after they’re asking for some clarification, he doesn’t try to explain it away, but even intensifies the word, using the word trogo, which is much more graphic, and literally means “to munch on” or “to gnaw on” like a dog gnawing on the bone. He is trying to say, “Look, people, listen to what I’m saying. You don’t have life within you unless you believe me!” He is serious about this.
Ok, now in case some people are freaking out and reconsidering this whole Catholic thing, let me just say now, you’re not cannibals. I promise you that you’re not walking in the footsteps of the Donner party when you’re waltzing up the Communion line. It is true, Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he said that it was his flesh and blood. As Catholics, we believe in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine are truly transformed. But not into arms and legs and fingers and hair, but into the whole body, blood, soul, and divinity. The whole Christ, the totum Christi, the total Christ, is contained in that tiny host. Even if you don’t receive from the chalice, you’re receiving the blood of Christ. And even if you were to receive one of the low-gluten hosts, you’re still receiving the whole body of Christ. Cannibals eat what is dead, but as Catholics, we eat what is alive. Christ rose gloriously and triumphantly, so what we’re eating isn’t the bleeding and bruised body of Jesus, but his glorious, risen, and spiritual body. Our reception of Christ doesn’t hurt or kill him. Rather, he shares himself with us, inviting us to more than just a picnic, but to a spiritual communion with him. This isn’t anything less real, but it’s beyond what a normal Kindergartner or Pre-schooler, or any one of us can see without faith and trust.
Obviously, it’s a difficult task to explain all that to Kindergartners and little children. What it all comes down to is trust. So I asked the kids that I was teaching, “Do you trust me? I hold the door open for you in the morning, I have Mass for you during the week. I am there to support you and talk with you and laugh with you. I may play jokes, but I would never hurt you. Do you trust me, and do you trust that what I’m telling you is true?” And they did. Children are wonderful examples for us, and really, I think we’re asked the same question today. Just like those people in the Gospel, our hearts might be welling up with questions, doubts, and confusion. But instead of backtracking, and watering it down for us, Jesus holds his ground, and he asks each of us, “Do you trust me?” This is a man who is saying that he has the bread of life. He promises eternal life. He always wants to listen to us, support us, and hurt with us. This is a man who was willing to be beaten and killed for what he wanted to give us. He would never hurt us. Do we trust him? When we have those doubts – Is the Eucharist really God? Is he even there at all? – that’s when we need to continue to feed our faith with the Bread of Life. And our doubts will starve themselves to death.
As we continue reflecting this week on Jesus as the Bread of Life, let us ask ourselves that one question: “Do we trust him?” May we have the grace to listen to his words, and may we entrust our hearts to him, confident that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life, and will be raised up forever with him on the last day.