John 6: 51-58
There is a distinct difference between eating fast food in haste versus savoring a meal that is not inhaled, but is a gnawing to get to the deepest part. It is a little bothersome to imagine loud gnawing and lip-smacking at the altar rail during communion, much less the image of gnawing on real flesh and blood. After all we have developed ways to make this part of the worship experience much more regal and refined. We have processes for the elements to be distributed uniformly, with as little human contact in the serving as possible. We process forward as directed, and take just enough time to receive the elements and move on. Taking time to say "Amen" is pushing the limit- we are mindful of the length of the service. We have elaborate and lovingly tended communion ware, and linens. Robert Capon [Hunting the Divine Fox] writes a bit about our modern spiritualizing of the sacrament:
Jesus instituted the sacrament of his body and blood by commanding his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. Human nature being what it is, however, it wasn't long before someone got the idea that the bread for the sacrament ought to be something special. It wasn't enough apparently, that by Jesus' own words, any old bread would be nothing less than his true, risen and glorious body really present in a high mystery. They had to have super-bread. And so in accordance with Murphy's Law (if a mistake can be made, it will be), the angelic fish-food communion wafers were invented, snow white, unleavened, crumbless, odorless and tasteless. And made by nuns. Out of rice flour. Without salt. In little waffle irons with holy monograms on them. [p. 125]
Somehow all of these centuries later, we would prefer a more sanitized and efficient experience. But the experience of the gospel repeatedly shows that God is instead using the humble and ordinary in extraordinary ways. Incarnation by a fleshy birth in a filthy stinky manger or cave- as unclean and impure as we can imagine. Ordinary common bread from a street vendor whose hands are calloused and whose fingernails are ragged and dirty. Wine made down the street, not from the finest Napa Valley vineyard. All of this talk about flesh and blood, the very things that shock consciences and certainly appalled the Jewish leaders- so much so they didn't just quarrel lightly, they were fraught with deep simmering conflicts that erupted from the core of their being at Jesus' words and life. Because what Jesus suggests is not how it is supposed to be- it violates all laws and standards. We too have created laws and standards of how we expect things to be. Even now we find it hard to imagine God using these means- these shocking, at times repulsive means of the incarnation, death and resurrection to bring what we need most deeply. We don't want to ponder gnawing, messy or gritty. No matter how gritty life can be, it is not God who shocked and offended by the earthiness of it all, but it is us. Maybe we don't want to go that deep.
But Christ is abiding in us in the depth of our humanity. Not just stopping by, but taking root deep within us. These images convey depth of relationship. Our relationship with Christ is not superficial and external, not temporary or" for this day", but at the heart and core of our existence, and is the heart and the gift of the Eucharist. Brian Peterson writes that today's gospel passage is about the fact that the Eucharist is life giving and that it is because of Jesus' incarnation that it is life giving. But more importantly it is about the fact that the Eucharist is life giving because it draws us into deeper relationship with Christ. "I abide in you and you in me" suggests a union of relationship- more than the fact that when we celebrate the Eucharist the elements enter us. Food does help to sustain life, but it is about how we are altered by the life-giving of Jesus in ways that transcend the caloric value of eating and drinking. We are re-ordered by Christ.
Can we allow in our minds that we hunger? There are many things in life for which we can be said to hunger. Things that compete for our hearts and minds and draw us in many directions. We may think they give us a new experience or new thrill. Out of this thinking comes the "List of 100 places you must see before you die" and other ways of identifying what we just HAVE to do. But just like that manna, they are for this day only. Though we can hunger for them to be more, by nature they cannot be. They cannot give the life we need most no matter how many times we try.
To satisfy our deepest hunger, it takes Christ. What if we truly hungered to get to the deepest level of this relationship? What if as much as we consume, we are consumed by this motivation? It would alter our very existence. And in the depth of that relationship, we would be drawn to those people and places we might prefer to not contemplate. Then not only would we be fed, but it would open our eyes to all of those who this day hunger and thirst. And if Christ is in us we could not stop ourselves from reaching out with that bread of life for all. It would gnaw at us and we would hunger for all to be fed. We would feel it in our very flesh, in the core of our being.