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The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
The words we read today have been at the centre of much controversy down the ages. When they were first said by Jesus they flew in the face of Jewish law and culture. As time passed many came to interpret them in a way that suggested that the bread and wine consumed in the service of Holy Communion were literally transformed into flesh and blood. Then came the idea that they represented a spiritual oneness with Christ. All of these interpretations of Jesus’ words, and others, have caused dissent between believers and have led the faithful further and further away from Jesus’ call to unity and peace.
At the Last Supper Jesus gave us the sacrament of Holy Communion, the simple meal in which we are called to remember him. At the same time he gave us the new commandment of love for one another, a depth of love that should aim to match his love for the whole of humanity. Rather than following Jesus’ injunction to love and serve in remembrance of him, Christians down the ages have turned Jesus’ words and actions into the stuff of conflict, and even persecution.
When Jesus taught that we should: eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood he was introducing us to a new, radical way of thinking. One of the principles that lie behind the Jewish ban on the consumption of another animal’s blood was based on the belief that the very essence of every creature was contained within that blood. When viewed in this light, Jesus is instructing his followers to become one with him through the simple act of taking bread and wine; he was giving us a way of remembering him and all he has done for the human race.
Even today, there are those who turn Holy Communion, or Mass, or the Lord’s Supper, or whatever you choose to call it into a battle ground. But … it remains at the heart of the Church’s teaching because it is a ritual, however simple or elaborate it may have become, that brings us into direct contact with Our Lord. Participation in Holy Communion should not be seen as an optional extra. Rather, it should be seen as the moment when we are recharged and revitalized by Christ himself, the moment when we become ritually one with Our Lord and Our God; the moment when our strength is renewed for the challenge of spreading the Good News to all.