Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
The Jews then 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 forever.’
There is an early Christian document called the Didachè, discovered only in 1873, though Christian writers through the ages have known of its existence. It was written (some scholars say) sometime between the years 50 and 100. It contains the very first use of the word ‘eucharist’. It is very moving to read this and to imagine the lives of the Christians who spoke and heard those words in the infancy of the Church.
Here is part of what it says: “At the Eucharist, offer the eucharistic prayer in this way. Begin with the chalice: ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the holy Vine of your servant David, which you have made known to us though your servant Jesus. Glory be to you, world without end.’ Then over the broken bread: ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge you have made known to us through your servant Jesus. Glory be to you, world without end. As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.’”
I remember that distant day when I made my First Communion. I remember waking up, having nodded off during the Mass, to find my candle dripping grease. But they had got on with things while I slept. Looking back today I think: During all the years since that time they have got on with lots of things while I slept! Some of the best things can happen to you while you sleep. The Scriptures say that God “pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.” And Jesus said that the Presence of God (the “Kingdom of God”) is like seed that a farmer scatters in his field and that grows even when he’s asleep. “Night and day, whether he sleeps or wakes, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (Mark 4:27). We ourselves grew like that, when we were in the womb, and later: by day and by night our mothers watched over us; we were so sure of them that we could go sound asleep when we knew they were around. God sort of mothers us too!
We experienced our mother first as a source of food, and through that visible channel we experienced her as a source of love. God is mothering us, attracting us, trying to tame us frightened creatures. How do you tame an animal? By feeding it. Gradually the animal begins to trust you, begins to believe in your goodwill. We were (and maybe we still are) like little frightened animals. We have to be tamed into human society. Love is invisible and needs a visible channel. That visible channel is originally food. This wisdom of the body is taken up and exalted in the Eucharist. The food which is the Eucharist has the deepest significance. It is about our relationship with God, the ultimate womb from which our existence came.
At the heart of that relationship, for Christians, is Jesus. The great 14th-century mystic, Julian of Norwich, not only called God our ‘mother’, but she called Jesus our mother! This may seem very strange, even weird. But, as always, she meant something luminous, and she had profound reasons for saying it. She did not mean that Jesus is like your mother. She meant the reverse: your mother is like Jesus. Your mother fed you from her own body. Our mother’s care for us may well be the best image we have of God – and of Jesus.
On this feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord don’t be too grown-up to let the visceral images of the Eucharist play around your mind!