Friday, February 01, 2008

Apologetic for a Random Reader (IV)

Today: the Real Presence

Obviously I'm not going to go into all of it. I just wanted to address one or two points that often come up when discussing the Eucharist with Protestants and other non-Catholics who have some familiarity with the Bible.

I do find it curious that the people most inclined to speak of the literal truth of the Bible tend to be the quickest to ascribe John 6 and related passages to symbolism. Certainly, the Eucharist contains symbolic elements, but Christ made an awful effort to emphasize the importance of the Bread of Life.

First, He uses very graphic language, words with connotations closer to "chew" and "gnaw" than to "assimilate for edification." When His listeners said "This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?" it should seem odd that Jesus would say "I can satisfy all your spiritual needs" and people would take issue with it, but not accuse Him of blasphemy, as happened elsewhere. At other times when people misinterpreted His parables and analogies, He corrected them; this time, He did not, which suggests that the more scandalous interpretation was the correct one after all. If I'm losing you at this point, ask yourself which seems more disturbing: a metaphor for God as the source of all goodness, or a command to commit something like ritual cannibalism.

Second, He spoke quite a bit about being the Bread of Life. More than any other analogy He made. Maybe more than all His other analogies put together. I haven't counted verses, but I'd put money on Eucharistic material outweighing other symbolism not counting Good Shepherd stuff, and I wouldn't be surprised if it did even including the Good Shepherd. If it were just a metaphor, why say things like "My flesh/blood is food/drink indeed?"

Sometimes, other parallels are made with more apparent symbolic language. "Jesus said He was a door," goes one common criticism, "but we know better than to look for a doorknob in His side, don't we?" "He said He is the vine, but we shouldn't be looking for a leaf-covered man at the Second Coming, should we?" Since I believe in the Real Presence, I sometimes wonder if these other metaphors also contain dimensions of truth that extend beyond the meaning we can apprehend (or can expect to lie beyond our apprehension), but true enough, Christ is not a door or a vine quite in the sense that we understand mundane portals and foliage to be.

When someone reminds us not to expect the doorknob, so to speak, though, they're missing a rather critical detail. We knew "I am the door" is a metaphor because there was no doorway to be shown to the disciples. We knew "I am the vine" is a metaphor because we never saw Apostles growing out of Him. How is "I am manna come down from heaven" different?

He did not only refer to Himself as food. He referred to food as Him. At the Last Supper, there was bread present, and there was wine present; and His words were "this is My Body...this is My Blood." Where we lacked signs of gateage or vinery in the other metaphors, so we could know that the language was only symbolic, here we have the consummation of the whole discourse on the Bread of Life, ratified with an unleavened loaf and a fermented drink squeezed from grapes. Here we have bread that is not just miraculously multiplied, but bread that Jesus names as Himself.

It strikes me as odd that John 6 should be so much harder to understand in this sense of identity than "the Father and I are one" is to be understood as a statement of identity. Then again, some people struggle with the Trinity, as well, so maybe at least I shouldn't be surprised.

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