In a vivid dream I had, I was consuming a small piece of bread with a strange inscription on it:
What Could this Difficult Bread Symbolize?
I feel strongly it is a reference to the Catholic belief that the consecrated bread and wine at mass is Jesus Christ himself, and that it can be very hard for our small human minds to not only understand this but also accept it as truth. As a Catholic, I believe that when I consume the bread and wine at mass, I am eating Jesus’ actual flesh and drinking his actual blood, and that he wants me to do this so I can grow to be more like him.
In a purely physical context, this can sound downright absurd, like we are cannibals with a literal bloodthirst. But we must be careful not to impose our worldly, material rules on divinity. By doing so, we are trying to squeeze God into the tiny, rigid rules of our physical existence and our social norms, minimizing his magnitude.
It was the belief among nearly all Christians until the Protestant Reformation:
All Christians, with but few minor exceptions, held the true doctrine of the Real Presence from the time of Christ until the Protestant Revolution in the sixteenth century.—The Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 26
Why do I continue to believe it? Faith from God for sure, and also a particular chapter in the Gospel of John that seems to knock me over the head about this mystery. Let’s explore it.
In John 6, we read how there was a lot going on in the days leading up to when Jesus taught about the Eucharist. He had just healed many sick people and drew up a large following. And just the day before this teaching, he not only fed a crowd of five thousand followers but he also walked on water! It was as if he was trying to bolster their belief to prepare them for a hard teaching to come. A massive crowd followed him, and they even wanted to make him an earthly king. So needless to say, the majority approved of him at this point.
Most of them accepted his other teachings up to this point—ones that were perhaps inscribed with a “Difficulty: Easy” rating—but when he invited them to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they probably thought he lost his marbles. This is the only teaching in the four Gospels that caused masses of his followers to abandon him because they couldn’t believe it.
The Gospel Passage
Let’s look at the Gospel reading:
The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not murmur among yourselves. […] Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”—John 6:41-43, RSVCE (emphasis added)
He affirmed it three times there! Even so, the followers struggle to grasp it so he presses on:
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”—John 6:52-58, RSVCE (emphasis added)
Here he pressed further by introducing the notion of drinking his blood. This must have sounded very dissonant to Jews, who were to strictly avoid the consumption of blood according to the dietary laws in Leviticus:
“It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places, that you eat neither fat nor blood.”—Lev 3:17, RSVCE
“If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.—Lev 17:10-12, RSVCE
Jesus must feel like a broken record repeating himself this way. He presses on, addressing their disbelief:
Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him. Jesus said to the Twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”—John 6:60-69, RSV2CE (emphasis added)
We are called to be the like the apostles, trusting in Jesus, even when it’s really, really, really hard.
Even today, this has caused large schisms in Christianity. Within the Christian faith there are different denominations that interpret this teaching differently. It’s as if the Christian faith is a tree that has branched out as it grows, just as the people of this world have branched out to seek answers. Some might argue that he’s only speaking symbolically. If he was, why would so many of his disciples leave after hearing it?
In my dream, this was only a medium difficulty teaching. I think the easy difficulty concepts are around God’s judgment, and we see much of that perspective of him in the Old Testament. The New Testament shows us more of the loving, merciful side of God, which we can really only begin to grasp if we understand that he is just. I think there are even more complex truths about God’s divinity that haven’t even been revealed to the earthly human race yet.
God must want to show us so dearly but we must first accept his easy and medium teachings.
Why? We wouldn’t be able to appreciate or understand the hard teachings without first understanding and embracing any prerequisite teachings. We saw in John 6 what happened when his “easy graduate” followers heard something that was “medium” difficulty for them. They walked away. They wrote him off as a loony who wants people to eat him.
What do you do when you encounter difficult teachings in life? You can either walk away from it, or walk with it and understand it more deeply. The same is true of religion. I have friends who are Catholic and continue to work through difficult teachings as Catholics, whereas other friends have lapsed in their faith because they heard a difficult teaching and didn’t want to accept it. It’s like we are given a stone, and we can step inside the church and use it to help build the church, or we can step outside the church and throw the stone at the church to help destroy it.
When I am facing a challenge in life, I see it as an opportunity to grow in wisdom and experience. Sometimes I kick and scream and complain, but when God helps me rise above my weaknesses, I can see it as it truly is: God wants to teach me something.