For millions of non-Catholic Christians, myself included when I was Protestant, Jesus was obviously using pure symbolism in John 6:53 when he declared to his followers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And one of the most popular reasons given why this is so is to claim a literal interpretation would make Christians into cannibals.
How do we respond?
One can understand and even sympathize with this sentiment. At least, if you consider it at a surface level. But is this really so obvious? And does this objection really come from the text of Scripture, or from a failure to believe what Jesus says? Does it come from pure and simple biblical exegesis, or from a pre-conceived bias?
The charge of cannibalism does not hold water for at least three reasons. First, Catholics do not receive our Lord in a cannibalistic form. Catholics receive him in the form, or under the appearances of bread and wine. Think about it, folks: the cannibal kills his victim—Jesus does not die when he is consumed in communion. Indeed, he is not changed in the slightest; the communicant is the only person who is changed in this exchange. The cannibal eats part of his victim—in communion the entire Christ is consumed, body, blood, soul, and divinity. The cannibal sheds the blood of his victim—in Eucharistic communion our Lord gives himself to us in a non-bloody way.
Thus, when we compare “cannibalism” to the Eucharist, we are talking about two essentially different realities as different as an elephant is different from a piece of cheese!
Second, if it were truly immoral, in any sense, for Christ to give us his flesh and blood to eat, it would be contrary to his holiness to command anyone to even symbolically eat his body and blood. Symbolically, performing an immoral act would be of its very nature immoral. This simply cannot be.
And third, the expressions “to eat flesh” and “to drink blood” already carried symbolic meaning both in the Hebrew Old Testament, and in the Greek New Testament—a Greek, by the way, that was heavily influenced by the Hebrew of the Old Testament. Rather than quote all of them, I will give you homework. Take a look at Isaiah, 9:18-20; 49:26; Micah 3:1-3; Ezekiel 39:18-20 and Revelation 17:6-16. Here I will cite just two—one from the Old Testament, and one from the New Testament:
Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people, and their flesh from off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron (Micah 3:1-3).
And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus… And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the harlot; they will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire… (Rev. 17:6-16)
In these texts we find “eating flesh” and “drinking blood” to be understood as symbolic for persecuting or assaulting someone. In fact, in Ezekiel 39:18-20 these terms refer to wholesale slaughter! Jesus’ Jewish audience would never have thought he was saying, “Unless you persecute and assault me, you shall not have life in you.” Or, even worse, “Unless you slaughter me…” Jesus could never encourage mortal sin, and certainly not for the attainment of eternal life!
In fact, I argue this may well be one reason, among others, the Jews took Christ at his word. They knew he was not speaking symbolically in John 6.
So again, I must ask the question. Why are Jesus’ words not taken literally by our Protestant friends? Is it really because of the text? Perhaps many have a superficial difficulty with this “cannibalism” problem, but what happens when we affirm that cannibalism really has nothing to do with a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist? Often, I have found it simply comes down to accepting Jesus at his word. What do Catholics do? Exactly that. We simply believe Jesus’ word.
Now, I do not say this to ridicule anybody. In fact, I of all people can say this lack of belief in Jesus’ word is understandable. Those who struggled with or even rejected Jesus’ words said the same thing our Protestant friends often say today. In John 6:52, the crowds following and obviously struggling with our Lord’s words said: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
I am sympathetic to those who struggle with Jesus’ words. They are hard to believe. But as Jesus said when a similar crowd struggled with a rather blunt statement declaring his divinity, in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.” In fact, they “took up stones… to stone him” (vs. 31). Jesus responded:
… even though you do not believe me, believe the works (the miracles Jesus had performed), that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father (vs. 38).
And then consider John 6:60. Here, even “many of his disciples” said “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
Here is the bottom line: Jesus’ words and Catholic teaching on the Eucharist are hard to believe. In fact, apart from the grace of Christ, I would be right there with the Jewish multitude and these among Christ’s “disciples” who would end up rejecting Jesus’ words.
I will never forget, many years ago, when I realized in my own life that I was rejecting the truth of the Eucharist just as these unbelievers were in John 6. “How can these Catholics say Jesus is going to give us his flesh to eat!” Those, I realized, were my words. I must say I found myself most uncomfortable with the thought that I was on the side of those who rejected the word of Jesus Christ! Let’s just say that was a definite “game-changer” for me!
And believe me, I have seen the same happen in countless lives over the years as they come to see the truth of the Eucharist just as I did.