“If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you.” (John 6:53) The people, to whom Jesus is speaking, are repulsed and say, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52) They conclude: “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” (John 6:60) This led Jesus to say, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63) What are we to make of his words?
At the beginning of John’s Gospel, we are told: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being except through him. All that came to be had life in him.’ (John 1:1-4) Being and life comes through God’s Word. A little later St John tells us that this ‘Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ (John 1:14) The word used here is the same word that Jesus uses when he urges us to eat to eat his ‘flesh’: the ‘flesh of the Son of Man’ that we are to eat is the Word of God; the Word that is God but become really present living among us, it is this that gives life, showing us how to live. (Matthew 11:29) The word that Jesus uses for ‘eat’ really means to ‘chew’ on it; it has about it the idea of wearing it down … like animals crunch and grind down their food as they chew. So, to obey Jesus’ command here, we are to really chew over the Word of God to get out of it all that is life-giving.
This reminds of St Bernard’s reference to our lectio divina, that slow and repetitive reading of Scripture, as ‘ruminatio,’ in which we ruminate on God’s Word, that we may keep it and draw life from it. The Word of God, which we are to chew over, is written down for us in Scripture. Sadly, it is not a simple document. It was written over a long period of time. It was written by many different authors. It was written a long time ago. It was written as God’s Word to circumstances not our own. At times it can seem unclear, at times it can seem contradictory, at times it can seem like just so much nonsense. But just as it is hard to have a relationship with a person from a different culture — we need to take time to get to know them, to understand their customs, presuppositions and prejudices — so too with God’s Word to us. For it is a Word made incarnate in another culture very different to our own, in another time very different to our own. To make some sense of it that we may keep it and draw life from it, we need to allow ourselves time to really ponder it, to ruminate over it.
That said, the Word of God is a living Word of the living God, and this Word has ‘pitched his tent among us.’ (Matthew 22:32; John 1:14) We are not left with just an unintelligible Word. In the Word, incarnate in our midst, we can see what what it means, see how to draw life from it and live (to do this is to drink his blood), and so ‘keep this Word.’ (John 8:55) This Word tells us that ‘the whole of the Law is summed up in a single commandment: You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Galatians 5:14. C.f.: Matthew 22:37-40) And in dying on the Cross, he showed us just what it means to love like that: ‘he loved them to the end,’ as Eucharistic Prayer IV puts it. (John 15:13) If we are to live, we have to love like that, keeping the Word. (John 12:24-25; 14:23) We may balk at this and say with those of Jesus’ time, “This is intolerable language. Who could accept it?” For even St Paul noted that ‘almost no one will die even for a righteous person’ … let alone for his less than righteous neighbour! (Romans 5:6-8) Nevertheless, his Word to us remains: “As I have love you, you also must love one another.” (John 13:34)
Fortunately, few of us are called to actually ‘lay down our life’ for our neighbour. Yet we must learn what it means to love like that. This Jesus, the Word of God, says to us, “Where two or three gather in my name, I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20), and, “What you do to one of these least brothers of mine, you do to me.” (Matthew 25:40) Here in the gathering, we, ‘the many, form a single body,’ as our second reading has it. (1 Corinthians 10:17) In our sharing, the least with the greatest so that ‘are all one’ (Galatians 3:28), ‘the bread that we break is a communion with the body of Christ,’ as St Paul puts it. (1 Corinthians 10:16) Or as St Luke puts it of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: ‘They recognised him at the breaking of bread.’ (Luke 24:31, 35) The Word of God has indeed come down to us and ‘pitched his tent among us;’ he is here in our midst, with us still. (John 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:11-14) It is only here in the gathering, in the breaking of bread that makes us one, that the Scriptures are opened for us, as our Eucharistic Prayer has it. (Eucharistic Prayer for Various Occasions. C.f.: Luke 24:27, 32)
It is only here, in our efforts to maintain the unity which is Christ with us, that Christ’s word of love is broken open for us. It is only here, in our trying to love those with whom we gather and holding them together, that we discover that ‘Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), and discover just what it means to be ‘patient and kind’ and so forth. Through our love, incarnate in a patience born of our ‘support for one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour,’ ‘we share in the sufferings of Christ,’ that he might ‘bring us all together to everlasting life,’ as St Benedict would put it. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:50; 72:5, 12) In our gathering, we do come to love as Christ loved us (Romans 15:1-3), laying down our life for our friends, our sisters and brothers in Christ. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 72:7) To love like this is life; to do it well is to have it in all its fullness. When we can do this, we shall have truly eaten of ‘the flesh of the Son of Man,’ such that his Word has become flesh in our flesh, and go on to give our all for one another. (John 6:56; 1:12)