Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, John 6:51-58
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. […] Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. […] Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.
Most, though not all, Protestants wiggle and fidget as they come to the Bread of Life Discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John; and they have good reason to be disturbed! Our Savior speaks quite plainly of the Eucharist when he states, For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed (John 6:56).
The common solution for many modern Protestants (following the path set out by Zwingli) is to call upon the words which follow toward the end of the discourse: It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I have spoken to you, are spirit and life (John 6:64). Appealing to these words, which reference the spirit as opposed to the flesh, these Protestants will claim that the Bread of Life Discourse is an extended metaphor.
There are four reasons why our Savior’s words in John 6:26-72 cannot be understood as an analogy or a metaphor. Among these, the second is perhaps rather unknown. [all four reasons come from Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma]
1) From the nature of the words used
One specially notes the realistic expressions “true” and “real” referring to the “food” and “drink” which is our Savior’s body and blood. Likewise, we note the concrete expressions employed to denote the reception of this Sacrament: the Greek word commonly translated as “to eat” is more literally “to gnaw upon” or “to chew”.
The bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. […] For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed (John 6:52,56).
2) From the biblical usage of the figure “to eat one’s flesh”
In the language of the Bible, to eat another’s flesh or to drink his blood in the metaphorical sense is to persecute him, to bring him to ruin and to destroy him. Thus, if Christ tells the Jews that we all must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and if he means this metaphorically, we would be led to conclude (following the witness of Sacred Scripture) that our Savior intends us to reject him.
Consider how the metaphor of eating flesh and drinking blood functions in the Scriptures:
Whilst the wicked draw near against me, to eat my flesh. My enemies that trouble me, have themselves been weakened, and have fallen. (Psalm 26:2)
By the wrath of the Lord of hosts the land is troubled, and the people shall be as fuel for the fire: no man shall spare his brother. And he shall turn to the right hand, and shall be hungry: and shall eat on the left hand, and shall not be filled: every one shall eat the flesh of his own arm: Manasses Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasses, and they together shall be against Juda. (Isaiah 9:19-20)
And I will feed thy enemies with their own flesh: and they shall be made drunk with their own blood, as with new wine. (Isaiah 49:26)
You that hate good, and love evil: that violently pluck off their skins from them, and their flesh from their bones? Who have eaten the flesh of my people, and have flayed their skin from off them: and have broken, and chopped their bones as for the kettle, and as flesh in the midst of the pot. (Micah 3:2-3)
Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl in your miseries, which shall come upon you. […] Your gold and silver is cankered: and the rust of them shall be for a testimony against you, and shall eat your flesh like fire. (James 5:1,3)
And the ten horns which thou sawest in the beast: these shall hate the harlot, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and shall burn her with fire. (Revelation 17:16)
3) From the reactions of the listeners
The listeners understand Jesus to be speaking in literal truth – How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (John 6:53) – and Jesus does not correct them, as he had done previously in the case of misunderstandings (cf. John 3,3; 4:32; Matthew 16:6). In this case, on the contrary, he confirms their literal acceptance of his words at the rist that his disciples and his apostles might desert him. Indeed, our Savior is willing to test his apostles on this point: Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away? (John 6:68)
4) From the interpretation of the Fathers and the Magisterium
Finally, we can recognize that this text is not to be understood as a metaphor from the interpretation of the Fathers, who ordinarily take the last section of the Bread of Life Discourse as referring to the Eucharist (e.g. St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexander, St. Augustine, et al.). Moreover, the interpretation of the Council of Trent confirms this.
The words that I have spoken to you, are spirit and life
In John 6:64, Jesus does not reject the literal interpretation, but only the grossly sensual interpretation. Our Savior insists that the Eucharist is spirit and life insofar as it gives life. For the body we receive in the Eucharist is not dead flesh, but profits us unto eternal life.
So St. Augustine says, “This Flesh alone profiteth not, but let the Spirit be joined to the Flesh, and It profiteth greatly. For if the Flesh profiteth nothing, the Word would not have become Flesh.” The same (lib. 10, de. Civit. Dei) says, “The Flesh of itself cleanseth not, but through the Word by which it hath been assumed.” And S. Cyril, “If the Flesh be understood alone, it is by no means able to quicken, forasmuch as it needs a Quickener, but because it is conjoined with the life-giving Word, the whole is made life-giving. For the Word of God being joined to the corruptible nature does not lose Its virtue, but the Flesh itself is lifted up to the power of the higher nature. Therefore, although the nature of flesh as flesh cannot quicken; still it doth this because it hath received the whole operation of the Word.”
Hence, we do well to pray: May the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ guard my soul unto everlasting life. Amen.