Jesus’ words in today's Gospel are both strange and familiar. We hear the words “This is my body; this is my blood” at every celebration of the Eucharist. But when we actually hear Jesus say “Eat my flesh,” and “Drink my blood,” the strangeness of what we do in the Eucharist hits us in the face. How do we even wrap our minds around something so weird? How to we understand and visualize how the Eucharist connects us with Jesus? After all, cannibalism is a universal human taboo. The images of eating flesh and drinking blood that exist in pop culture are only zombie TV shows and vampire movies. These are not appealing images.
Luckily, we don't need to go only to the realm of horror fiction to envision how one person's flesh and blood can give life to another. We can go to the realm of biology. And even more specifically, pregnancy.
As more of my friends and family experience pregnancy, I am struck by how similar it is to what Jesus speaks about in today's Gospel. Pregnancy is ordinary- it's how every person arrived on this planet. And yet, the more you think about it, the stranger it is. Hearts and limbs and eyes and brains and people just grow. More than one pregnant friend has commented on feeling both thrilled and unsettled by the kicking and moving of their child. A breast-feeding mom commented to me that she's often amazed that her body can feed her baby without her even thinking about it.
Witnessing this “ordinary strangeness” of pregnancy has led me to think in new ways about what Jesus does in giving his body and blood for us, and in how we can be Christ's body and blood for each other.
First, seeing my pregnant friends and their new babies has reminded me of me how necessary the Eucharist is for our survival. No one can exist without first being nourished by the body of their mother. Unless we are nourished by her body, we cannot have life. Likewise, the body and blood of Christ is necessary for our spiritual life. It's not an add-on, but at the core. Without it, we cannot have life within us.
Second, thinking about the Eucharist side-by-side with pregnancy gives me an image of how it helps us grow in closeness to Jesus. Jesus tells us “Whoever Eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” Scientists have discovered that cells from a baby remain inside a mother's body for decades -- in her blood and in her body, including in her brain. The mother and child literally and physically remain in each other. So too, with the Eucharist we remain in Jesus, as he nourishes and remains in us.
Finally, it reminds me that “participating in the body and blood of Christ,” as Saint Paul mentions in the first reading is demanding, even as it is a gift. The pregnant women I have known all been fortunate to experience their pregnancies and their birth of their children as a source of great joy. Even so, I have been surprised by the ways in which their bodies are affected. They speak of aches and pains from weight and sciatica, of exhaustion, of the inability to sleep because of their size and the movement of their child. And these are all during healthy pregnancies with no complications! Jesus gives us his body and blood, but it did not come without sacrifice. As we participate in his body and blood, and as St. Augustine says, “become what we receive,” we cannot do so without some cost to ourselves. This challenge is daunting. But the first reading, about God providing manna in the desert, is a reminder that even in our afflictions, we are never outside of God's care and tenderness and protection.
Let us pray that we don't keep ourselves away from the life and nourishment of the Eucharist, that we are attentive to the ways that it causes us to grow in closeness with Jesus, and that we trust in God's tender compassion when we are called follow in Jesus’ example and sacrifice for others.
Elizabeth Burns is the Chair of the Humanities Department at Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School, where she also teaches Religious Studies. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Fairfield University and a Master of Theological Studies degree from the University of Notre Dame, and has twice been accepted into the National Endowment for the Humanities “Summer Seminars for School Teachers” program.