Enigma Ingesting and Imbibing


John 6:51-58

Q: What do you get when a psychic midget escapes from prison?

A: A small medium at large.

I have my daughter to thank for that one.  But my point for the moment is that riddles are fun.  Or at least they can be.

So, what about this one?

Q: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?

A: Man.

Morning here is infancy; noon is the prime of life; and the evening represents the sunset years, when man walks with the assistance of a cane.

Kind of fun, eh?

But does anyone know where it comes from?

In Greek mythology, this was the riddle posed by the sphinx.  She was a monster who spent her time terrorizing the city of Thebes and devouring anyone who couldn’t answer this riddle.

Not so fun now!

This particular story ends when a hero named Oedipus successfully answers the sphinx’s riddle; she casts herself off a cliff in despair; and the people of Thebes go on to live happily ever after—or, actually, not so much, if you know your Greek mythology.

To expand on my earlier point, then, riddles can be fun, but this isn’t always the case; riddles come in all shapes and sizes.

We often think of them as fun—enjoyable: they’re clever; they play on words and logic, often surprising us in some way.

But what about when there’s more at stake than just a trick of mind?  What if a riddle is more a matter of life or death?  What if, like Oedipus, we will in fact die if we give the wrong answer?

Then the riddle’s not so much fun.

Then it doesn’t feel like a riddle at all.

Now we aren’t able to look at it dispassionately, detached from it as if it were a lizard in an aquarium.  No longer do we have the luxury to puzzle over it on our terms, like some Sudoku puzzle we wrestle with until we solve it or something better comes along.

Instead, now we have no choice but to wrestle with it.  Now it makes us uncomfortable.  We might not find the answer right away.  Or ever!  And so we resign ourselves that we’ll just have to end up living with the conundrum indefinitely.  It’s not fun.  Nor does it feel like a riddle.  At all.

Still, that’s just what it is.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says; “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.”

What does Jesus mean here?

It’s a riddle, isn’t it?

But it’s hard.  There’s no easy answer.  It makes me uncomfortable.  It brings an element of unresolved tension to my faith.  It’s a conundrum.

And so it’s not fun.  It doesn’t feel like a riddle.  At all.

Now, on the one hand, there’s some really good stuff here.  Jesus came down from heaven, for instance.  That’s good.  Jesus, who is fully God, left a place beyond time and entered into our earthly dimensions of time and space in order to give life to the world.  I get that.

And then, also, he says we can live forever with him.  We who love him will dwell with him forever in that very place that is beyond space and time.  I get that too.  At least, I sort of get it.

But on the other hand—and here’s what I don’t get—at all!—he says that in order to do this—in order to dwell with him in that place beyond the space and time we know—we must eat his flesh.

What?!  He’s fully God, yes.  But he’s fully human too.  So, eat his flesh?  What?!

Which is exactly how the people around him responded when he said these things:

“The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us flesh to eat?’”

To which Jesus said, C’mon, guys, it’s a riddle!  Don’t you understand?

Or, that’s effectively what he said anyway.

What he actually said was, Yeah, you’ve got to eat my flesh.  And, what’s more, you’ve got to drink my blood (!), because my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Jesus is using figurative language.  If that weren’t clear enough already when he said the things he did about eating his flesh—if cannibalism weren’t already repugnant enough—he adds this variation about drinking his blood too!  Jews found the practice of drinking the blood of any animal (aside from the suggested cannibalism) repugnant.

Now—obviously!—Jesus is not talking literally.  Rather, he’s saying, effectively, C’mon, guys!  Don’t you understand?  It’s a riddle!

But it’s a hard one.  It’s one we’re not comfortable with.  It brings an element of unresolved tension to our faith.  And so it’s not fun.  At all!

And that’s what Jesus’ followers thought.  Peeking ahead to next week’s Gospel (which picks up where this week’s leaves off), we find these words:

“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66).

Jesus has posed a hard riddle to his disciples—and to us.  We might rather toy with it like a Sudoku puzzle than live with it.  We might want rather to be a faithful spectator, watching Jesus from the sidelines, than to live into all that he calls us to.

But there is a problem with this kind of sideline faith: when we come to the hard riddles—the conundrums—we’d rather turn back and no longer walk with him.

This riddle is not meant to be fun.  Rather, this riddle is a matter of life and death.

So then, what does Jesus’ riddle mean?

(Oh, wouldn’t you like to know!)

We can learn something from those who have gone before us.  For there has been considerable debate about this riddle in Christian history, especially since the Reformation in the 16th century; focused on the Eucharist, or the Mass.

What Jesus meant, the Roman Catholic Church claimed, was that the bread we eat at the Mass is Jesus’ actual, physical body; and the wine we drink his actual blood.  And so, when the priest consecrates the elements, somehow, mysteriously, even though it still tastes and feels and smells like bread and wine, they have become the very flesh and blood of Jesus.

To which the Protestants said, Pshaw!  (This was the 1500s; people still said things like “pshaw.”)  How can the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus?  That makes no sense!  I mean, he’s seated right now at the right hand of the Father in heaven.  So how can his literal body and blood appear on Sunday mornings in every Christian church around the world simultaneously?  No way!

But, you see, this protest put Protestants in a sort of quandary, because they liked literal.  They wanted to interpret everything Jesus said—yea, even everything in the Bible—literally.  But this one—that Jesus’ followers are to eat his flesh and drink his blood—oh, this one was too much.

So some good Protestants said, No, we can’t take this conundrum literally.  At all.  Of course not!  So let’s look at what Jesus said elsewhere.  Ah!  “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said.  Remembrance.  In fact he said this about baptism too.  So, yeah, that’s the literal path to tread.  Baptism and Communion aren’t sacraments at all, but to be done only in remembrance, out of obedience to Jesus.

And so went the debate—a debate that continues in some circles to this day, in fact.

Incidentally—just going to follow a little rabbit trail here—from this debate is probably where the term hocus pocus originated.  Yeah!

When you hear the words hocus pocus, what do you think of?  Some kind of spell, right?  It’s an incantation; or, more simply, magic.

This phrase we associate with a magic spell most likely comes from the Latin setting of the Mass used in the days of the Reformation.

You know the part of the Eucharistic Prayer when the celebrant says, “This is my body . . . Do this for the remembrance of me”?  Well, the Latin for this is my body is hoc est corpus meum.

Now, if we shorten it to hoc est corpus, and I’m a Protestant who doesn’t much care for Latin and am otherwise looking for something to criticize, it’s pretty easy to see how hoc est corpus became hocus pocus

And to see how the Protestant synopsis of the Catholic Mass became nothing more than magic: “Behold, the bread.  Hocus pocus!  Behold, the body.”

For the record—just so you know—the Episcopal Church is somewhere in the middle.  The Eucharistic elements are Christ’s body and blood; and we do this for the remembrance of Jesus.  But how the elements get that way is not magic: it’s mystery.  And we’re content to leave it there: in the realm of mystery.

Anyway, all this wrangling over what Jesus’ riddle means has missed much of the point.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It is good for us to wrestle with Jesus’ words.  We should puzzle intellectually over this riddle throughout our lives.

But this riddle is not merely intellectual.  Eating and drinking are physical, material acts.  Ingesting and imbibing involve all five senses.

Following Jesus is not a Gnostic act.  It is not only about observing him, considering his words, contemplating his deeds, wrestling through his riddles and paradoxes at our leisure—as we might work through Sudoku puzzles.

Rather, following Jesus requires the engagement of our full being.  We not only admire him as a great teacher, preacher, healer, and wise man; we also are crucified with him and die to ourselves.  We ingest him; we imbibe him; and thereby we live in and through him.

And we say, with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Following the living bread, Jesus Christ, is a flesh-and-blood riddle; not something merely to observe, but to ingest and imbibe over a lifetime.


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