Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Hard Sayings

As I explained below, I really am not comfortable explaining Catholic theology in anything but the simplest and most non-argumentative way. If you want to know what's going on with transubstantiation, there are a ziliion people who can explain it better than me -- and nobody but God who will be able to tell you it all, because the thing's a mystery beyond human comprehension. We believe it because Jesus said so.

But yes, it's strange that we Catholics (and Orthodox) are so stubbornly literal in explaining today's gospel. Usually we're the ones telling everybody else to take it easy, because thus and so passage is written in poetic language. The earth doesn't have four corners and it wasn't made in seven days, and sheesh, why do you think we have two Creation stories? But not this passage. Oh, no. This is the passage that drove off many of Jesus' disciples and made the Romans think we were cannibals and vampires. This is where the rubber starts to hit the road.

Jesus said to the crowds:
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world."

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
"How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
Jesus said to them,
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,
and I will raise him up on the last day.
For my flesh is real food,
and my blood is real drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever."

If this had just been a symbolic meal of bread and wine, there wouldn't have been any big deal. Plenty of people ate symbolic meals of unity with each other in the ancient world. Jews had Sabbath meals all the time that were holy. But not this holy. The holy of holies was at the Temple, where the priests made sacrifices to God.

We also have priests. They do more with the altar than present God with offerings of bread and wine. No, it is an altar of sacrifice. Through them, God makes Himself really present, flesh and blood, in what only looks like bread and wine. Jesus is our sin offering, since there is no lamb spotless enough, worthy enough, for the sins of the whole world. God is sacrificed to God on the altar; the Perfect One in the hands of imperfect priests. It isn't a remembrance or reenactment of Calvary; it is that single perfect sacrifice at Calvary.

It is a holy moment. The early Christian priests hid the moment from the people. The Orthodox still do it in a little room behind the altar area, and up till Vatican II, the priests did everything at the altar with their backs turned. Now we can see it, but still bow our heads before the awesomeness of the mystery.

But why, if the sacrifice has already taken place, does God let us all participate in it every week? What's the point?

The point is that, as always after a sacrifice, whether pagan or Jewish, a sacrifice creates leftovers that somebody has to eat. In this case, it's the priests and the priestly people. We eat real meat and drink real blood. We have to. They say you are what you eat, and nothing but the body and blood of a mortal who is also the Eternal God could make us mortals who will live eternally. So we eat and drink.

We would not dare to do or say these things of our own volition. They are commanded of us. This is one of the most ancient and central beliefs of Christianity, handed down to us by the apostles. Martyrs died for this to live by it forever. Everything else may be a symbol, but this is real and true -- Jesus feeds us His meat and blood.

As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the "Panis Angelicus", Dat panis coelicus, figuris terminum. "The heavenly bread gives an end to symbols."


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