(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Text: John 6:51-58
[They] started arguing with one another:
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52)
In 1263 the small Italian town of Bolsena became the backdrop for one of the most famous miracles of the Middle Ages when, in the ancient church of Saint Christina, the consecrated host inexplicably began to bleed during Mass. The host, the Bread of the Eucharist, bled over the priest’s hands and over the corporal – the square linen placed on the altar. The corporal stained with Lord’s blood was taken to the city of Orvieto and enshrined as a relic in the cathedral where it attracted both pilgrims and sceptics who wanted to see this wonder for themselves. Almost 800 years later that corporal is still there on display; still the cause of much devotion for believers and of speculation for sceptics. Perhaps more remarkable (and relevant for us) than the miracle itself is the back story of the priest who was celebrating Mass when all this took place; the man whose hands were touched by the blood flowing from the host. He himself wasn’t the stuff of miracles or a famous wonderworker; he was just a pilgrim on his way to Rome named Peter of Prague. He was devout and committed priest but, as the story goes, Pater also harboured doubts that the Lord Jesus could be truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And so, this miracle that touched him so literally was soon perceived by people as God’s own intervention to restore the faith of one of his doubting servants. But it didn’t stop there; news of this baffling event spread like wildfire and the Miracle of Bolsena became the cause of much devotion and catalyst for renewed faith in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Today the lectionary presents us with the most important instalment of the Bread of Life discourse from John’s gospel. And as we listen to the Lord Jesus saying, ‘I am the living bread which has come down from heaven’ (John 6:51), we too might start to feel a little like Pater of Prague. In fact, we might be tempted to dismiss the entirety of John 6 as nonsense or as a convoluted metaphor, by echoing the words of Jesus’ opposers who say, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
For three-quarters of the Church’s history the vast majority of Christians have believed that Jesus comes to be really and truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist; have believed that the bread and the wine offered on the altar are permanently changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord; and have believed that through participation at the altar (by receiving Holy Communion) soul and body are nourished with Christ himself. Then came the various waves and controversies of the Reformation, and with them arrived terrible confusion for the average person in the pew as well as doubts about the presence of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. Ironically, it was precisely those reformers who advocated a form of Christianity based simply on literal teachings of the Bible who brought many Christians to doubt the very words of Christ himself and to ask sceptically once again, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
The result of this dreadful confusion is that so many devout and committed Christians nowadays harbour doubts like Peter of Prague; so many are left confused. They stay away from the Mass, regarding Holy Communion as an optional extra, rather than a necessary, personal, and intimate encounter with the Lord Jesus. A repeat of the Miracle of Bolsena would be a great blessing from God, and it may help Christians to recover faith in the Eucharist. But where would it leave us in the long run? Do we really need another Eucharistic miracle in order to reaffirm the belief that Jesus is present for us on the altar? The truth is that we don’t. If we needed miracles, then God would provide them. We have something greater than miracles here; we have the word of the Lord Jesus… and if we can’t trust the word of Christ, who could we trust?
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ People might ask, but to this question Jesus simply and unequivocally replies, “the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Cf. John 6:51) and,
‘my flesh is real food
and my blood is real drink’ (John 6:55).
Whenever we approach the altar rail at Holy Communion, or whenever we approach the tabernacle, Jesus is there for us – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The one who loves us, is here for us. The one feeds us, is here for us. The one who saves us, is here for us.
Though the lowliest form doth veil thee
as of old in Bethlehem,
here, as there, thine angels hail thee…
…here for faith's discernment pray we,
lest we fail to know thee now.
Thou art here, we ask not how.
(from Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour)