The Eucharist makes us Catholic Christians, but we can only understand the Eucharist by thinking like Jews. We see this very clearly in today’s Gospel.
The great insight of the Jews was that God loved them. This runs throughout the entire Old Testament. At the very beginning they understood that creation was not an accident or a cruel joke as most ancient peoples believed but the act of an all loving and all-powerful deity. The first humans did not find themselves in a wasteland but rather in Paradise, a place of perfection. They saw as well the meaning of Sin. God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for then they would die. They are in paradise, what would they know of evil? The sin of Adam and Eve, as ours, is to think we at we can do better than God. Our creation would be better than his. They ate and died.
Yet God did not give up. He sought a relationship with humanity in general and the Jews in particular. This expressed in a covenant. A covenant is not a contract. It is not a distribution of goods and services but is a sharing of life. It presumes a sacrificial offering of an animal and, in most cases, sharing a common meal. This was originally offered by the head of the clan then in the temple after its establishment in Jerusalem. Whereover performed it was a sign of God’s love and his desire to journey with his people.
But alas time and again the people wanted more than the Lord was offering them and tried to obtain their desires with predictable consequences. After each debacle the Lord sent them prophets to call them back. Yet however harsh the discipline he never lost his love for them. The most powerful image remains that of the prophet Hosea who used his own experience with an adulterous but forgiven wife to express the Lord’s desire for reconciliation with his people: “… for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath”. (Hosea 11: 9b)
This knowledge that God loved them was so powerful that it affected every aspect of their lives including how they interpreted the scriptures. We read in today’s Gospel of the mana that came down from heaven and fed them in the desert. By Jesus’ time Mana had been reinterpreted as the Law. Not the individual rules and regulations but its totality: a God given way of life bestowed as a sign of his special favor. Thus “It is written in the prophets: they shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me”.
Yet there were limits. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died” Human love is wonderful, but comes with built in frustration. We try to give ourselves to another completely, yet we can never succeed. Human love is touched by eternity but ultimately, we all die. The Pharisees understood that the Lord would reward the good with life after death but could not break down the wall between God and Man. Love would be rewarded but not fulfilled.
The Christian insight is that God did not create us to be frustrated. He has revealed to us not only that God loves us, but that God is love. John’s Gospel is a hymn to this awakening.
I often quote St Athanasius of Alexandria: “God became man so that man could become God”. This is called deification and usually raises a few eyebrows. It sounds too good to be true, but we hear it at every Mass. When the priest sets the chalice at the preparation of the gifts he says:” By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity”.
More to the point we experience it at every Mass because the Eucharist although built on the Jewish understanding of covenant has transformed it. Because Jesus is both priest and victim at the Mass, we truly share life with him. This real sacrifice allows a real relationship with Jesus and we as Catholic Christians know that this relationship will change us. The Eucharist will make us more and more like Jesus and less and less like the earliest edition of ourselves. The Jewish covenant calls them to be the best person they can be, the Christian calls us to be Jesus.
We hear today: “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.” God’s love is more than sharing his mind with us in the law it is sharing his very life with us in the Eucharist. Living forever does not mean continuing as we are in perpetuity essentially a living death. Our new life is to be transformed and receive life beyond life. We do not know what it is, but it will be wonderful beyond our present ability to conceive much less understand
There are no free rides with Jesus. We see the past, we hope for the future, but we live in the present. The more we are transformed into Jesus, the more we must act like him. I hope that you feel elevated when you leave Mass today, but I pray that you will lift up other people during the week. Look at the relationships Jesus forms in the Gospels, how close are you getting to that?
St Clare whose feast we celebrate this Wednesday said that we become what we love, given what she saw around her she meant this as a warning. Let us be more hopeful and seek to become who we eat.