I think Jesus is speaking very clearly here even though many of those who heard Him speak didn’t know what to make of this statement. More ironic is that, twenty centuries later, so many people still don’t get it even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Let’s look at the rest of the passage:
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
What happened next? Many of those who heard Him speak walked away from Him. This was too hard for them to understand; too hard to accept. Even today, knowing what happened on Holy Thursday, many non-Catholic Christians believe that Jesus was speaking figuratively. The same people whose faith teaches that everything in the Bible must be taken literally refuse to accept the Real Presence of Jesus Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
But, look at the context. Jesus had been sent by His Heavenly Father to establish a Church. Beginning with just twelve Apostles He was gaining a following. By His words and by His actions, He was gaining new followers every day. Then He tells them they must eat His flesh and drink His blood and He begins to lose them. They’re walking away. If He’d been speaking figuratively wouldn’t it have made sense for Him to say, “Wait! I didn’t mean you really have to eat my flesh and drink my blood. It was just a metaphor; a figure of speech.”? Read on. He stands by what He’s said and then asks the twelve if they want to leave Him too. Of course, they say “no”.
Even though the Apostles have faith in Jesus they still must have wondered exactly what He meant by drinking His Blood and eating His flesh. It had to be the subject of a lot of conversation around the campfire when Jesus wasn’t there.
Fast forward to the feast of the Passover. Jesus is about to clear up the mystery. With His Apostles gathered around Him at the Passover table
He took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you. Luke 22:19-20
Aha! That’s it! He doesn’t want us to actually bite into His holy flesh and drink the blood that flows from the wound. He’s created the Eucharist and given the Apostles the ability to turn bread and wine into His Body and Blood. That ability still exists today in our bishops and priests. You and I can partake of the Eucharist, His Body and Blood. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. “
As a deacon, I prepare the altar for the priest and stand by his side as he turns ordinary bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. I can say, without fear of contradiction, that the elements of the Eucharist look exactly the same after consecration as they did before. They also taste the same. Yet you and I know that they’re different. How do we know? Because we have faith. Our understanding of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection tells us that Jesus was incapable of telling a lie. If we don’t believe everything He said, then we can’t believe anything He said. If we catch Him in even one lie, then our faith is destroyed.
When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we take him into our very selves. It’s great to read the Bible, to go to mass, to pray privately, and to do any number of other things that bring us closer to Christ. But when we receive the Eucharist we aren’t just close to Christ, Christ is within our very bodies. No one can come closer to God than that. Frankly, I can’t imagine why anyone would even consider leaving the Catholic Church and giving up such an amazing gift.
Having Christ’s actual presence circulating in our own bodies is beyond cool. It’s so awesome that it’s almost indescribable.
[Side note. If you believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, please show Him the proper respect. Think about what you’re about to receive. Follow the Church’s minimal rules on fasting. Don’t chew gum. And come to church dressed appropriately.]