Friday, August 17, 2012

We Become What We Eat

Twentieth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Some of us, especially the more adventurous, have eaten really weird and wonderful stuff, ranging from what would normally be considered humanly unpalatable fare to heavenly gastronomical delights. Food is much more than a tool of survival. Food is a source of pleasure, comfort and security. Food is also a symbol of hospitality, social status, and religious significance. No wonder people like to say ‘you are what you eat.’ The Chinese have given this idiom a literal twist. If you wish to enhance your intelligence and memory, feast yourself silly on pig’s brains. If you wish to give a boost to your sexual endurance, then consume a tiger’s or deer’s penis or two. Primitive cannibalistic tribes ate the organs of their defeated foes in order to acquire their courage and strength. Urrrghhh …. If your body could talk, what would it say about you and your eating habits?

If you find any of the above dietary suggestions remotely disgusting and you feel your guts churning with nausea, then what do we make of our main meal every Sunday when we come for mass? Well, non-Christians would also think that we Christians have strange eating habits, if not downright disgusting and perverse. From the earliest times, Christians have been accused of cannibalism – eating human flesh. For example, Pliny, one of the Roman officials who had ordered the persecution and execution of Christians felt that the ritual cannibalism of Christians warranted death. He likened this Christian attitude to a kind of contagious insanity or mental disorder that would inevitably result in crimes against the Roman state.  

Do Christians really suffer from some ‘contagious insanity or mental disorder’? Have Catholics lost all logical sense when they place their belief in a piece of wafer bread and a cup of wine that they believe is truly, really, substantially, the Body and Blood of Christ?  I don’t think anyone of you here personally believes that you are insane or even a cannibal. This is not because we do not understand the gravity of these accusations. Perhaps, we have grown immune to the full implications and gravity of Jesus’ words and the Church’s teachings. The main reason we should be concerned for our lack of concern is that many of us have become pagans in the pews. We have stopped believing in the Real Presence.

When you believe in the truism of the statement, you are what you eat, this is even more true in the spiritual sense as Jesus tells us when speaking about the Eucharist. But the truth of the matter is that many Catholics do not believe in what the Eucharist is and not just what it represents. If we were to conduct a survey on what Catholics actually believe in, I’m convinced that many would answer the question on whether they believe in the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist as ‘No’ or do so in an ambivalent way.

The Eucharist, for many, has become, just like the Protestants, merely symbolic or metaphorical. It’s not really the Body and Blood of Jesus. It serves only to remind us of Jesus as far as it gives meaning to your lives. For others, coming for communion is merely perfunctory, fulfilling an obligation, living up to a family tradition. It would seem odd if you came for mass and not receive communion. What would your neighbours think? The attitude of these nominal Catholics is also reflected in their overall response to the mass. You are what you eat. Many scarcely hear the Sunday readings, not to mention the long and boring homilies, because their minds are filled with so many other concerns and items on their to-do list.  Many are just waiting to run out of Church after communion. Others don’t wait to run, they choose to stand outside the church – one wonders whether there is any awareness of what’s happening inside. Many complain about the various reasons for prolonging the mass, additional rites and liturgies, catecheses at the end of the mass, announcements. Most attend mass not because they feel they are receiving sustenance and food from heaven but because they are actually doing the church a big fat favour by honouring her with their presence.

Each Mass offers a feast of God’s word not only in the readings, but in the prayers and acclamations.  The word of God in the liturgy is like a double-edged sword that penetrates deep, challenging us, healing our wounds, enlightening our minds, directing our steps.  It stimulates the eyes of faith to recognise the Body and Blood of Christ under the humble signs of bread and wine.  The Eucharist is indeed the most substantial food Christ offers us.  Why did he give us his body, blood, soul and divinity under the forms of bread and wine?  Because you are what you eat. We become Christ by receiving Him.

In today’s gospel where Jesus invited His disciples to eat His body, He is not speaking symbolically because otherwise the disciples would have not been scandalised and some would not have deserted Him. The notion of consuming human sacrifice, a grossly repellent practice of the pagans who occupied Canaan, was forbidden in the Law. What more the eating of human flesh? But instead of moderating his words to the leaders, Jesus only intensifies the ultra-realistic verb trogein (Greek: to crunch, to gnaw). The verb connotes both the state of being torn to pieces and the mandate to consume the sacrifice. I can still recall with disgust the last time when I was invited by some Filipino friends to eat their national delicacy, balut, boiled fertilised duck’s egg. I gasped and choked when I had to bite, crunch on and swallow the entire thing, flesh, feathers, bones and all! Just imagine, if you were to feast on human flesh and bone, and throw in a human blood pudding on the side. One can only imagine the disgust of those who walked away from these words.  Such madness, such double-talk: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have life in you. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” 

Today, the Church invites us to ponder this deep mystery of the Eucharist with Wisdom that comes from God. The bread from heaven can only be consumed and understood with Wisdom that comes from heaven. What is wisdom? Is it the same as intelligence? Today’s readings, however, paint a different picture of holy wisdom. St. Paul warns us in the second reading, “Be very careful about the sort of lives you lead, like intelligent and not like senseless people… And do not be thoughtless but recognise what is the will of the Lord.” That’s it. That’s real wisdom. It is not one’s cleverness that matters. It is recognising the will of God. It is thinking with the mind of God.

Therefore, human intelligence can sometimes be at odds with divine wisdom. Perhaps, one of the best examples we can give is the Eucharist. Our mind and perception tells us it looks like bread and tastes like bread. But it isn’t bread. It’s truly, really, substantially, the Soul and Divinity, Body and Blood of Christ. This is beyond human intelligence and can only be comprehended with divine wisdom, wisdom driven by love. Love need not necessarily be logical. Neither would it always appear reasonable to us. But love is the logic of God. Love embodies the wisdom of God. Jesus gives his own life for us on the cross, not only for the righteous but also for sinners, for those who have rejected him, for those who were his enemies, for those who refused to believe in him. This isn’t logical but it is wisdom based on the love of God. When we Christians come to the mass and receive communion, it is Jesus that we are receiving, his flesh, his body, his life, his mission. This may sound like foolishness to the world, but for us it is wisdom. Jesus is the only food that can satisfy all our wants and desires. The Eucharist is the only food that guarantees eternal life.

You are what you eat. With normal food, it is more a fact that the food becomes you, and has its place in your body. But with the Eucharist, the Lord does not become you, rather, you become Him. In his Easter Sermon, 227, St. Augustine exhorts: “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive.”  And in receiving Christ, we become one body in Him, and through Him, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Through receiving the Eucharist, we enter into a unique and personal relationship with the Trinity and with one another, the Body of Christ.  This is why Christ came to us in the Incarnation, to raise man to God through spiritual grace. Today He comes to us in the Eucharist to raise us up to Him body and soul. When you receive Him, do so with fear and trembling, for it is God who dwells in you. Receive Him also in love, for He comes so that you and Him may be one and the same, so that you may also say with St Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but 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). We become what we eat.

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