John 6:41-51, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
My maternal grandfather was an inveterate sabungero. Unlike our lola who went to mass daily, he went to church only on Christmas. The rest of the Sundays, “nagsisimba siya sa sabungan,” his own children joked. Kung sa bagay. In every sabungan (cockfight) was a man called “Kristo.” He was “all-knowing.” He was the one who took all the bets from the noisy gamblers without ever writing a single name or number down. Oh, but he remembered who owed how much! Also, this “Kristo” had both arms stretched sideways all the time as he took bets all around. I still wonder to this day if my lolo ever resorted to what people say some sabungeros would do. That they would line up for communion, but instead of swallowing the host, they would walk right out of the church after communion, spit it out, and feed it to their fighting cocks.
Devoted Catholics have our own share of idiosyncrasies regarding the Body of Christ. I’ve known a few people who have taken a host from the tabernacle, brought it back to their houses, and reposed it on their altars. Bawal po ‘yon, but it’s been done. And then, there was a time when Catholics were given the impression that if we couldn’t receive communion because of personal unworthiness or sin, we could go to an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and there do “ocular communion” instead(!) And then we also have Catholics who go to confession every single week. They believe that even a “venial” sin would snowball into a mortal sin if they ever received communion without confessing it. And thankfully, we also have very sincere Catholics who truly hunger for the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, the rule says you have to restrain yourself from receiving communion if you’re separated or divorced, period—even if you happen to be the victim of the spousal abandonment or abuse. So, while they are daily mass goers, these very devout brothers/sisters of ours, they have obediently kept themselves from ever eating at the Holy Banquet. Now see, this isn’t entirely any of these people’s fault, because many of us priests and catechists, we could never seem to talk about the Eucharist without tethering Holy Communion to its usual ball-and-chain: sin.
Make no mistake about it, sisters and brothers. Jesus was very serious when he said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Many bible scholars believe that Jesus meant it when he described his flesh as bread to be eaten. No wonder, in this same chapter of John, many disciples walked away when the Lord said, “Truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, whom I will raise up on the last day.” It must have sounded like cannibalism to them! They must have thought him really out of his mind. Still, it’s unmistakable, sisters and brothers, though not entirely explicable—Jesus really believed he was “bread from heaven,” meant to be eaten as food for eternal life. It might take us twenty, thirty or more years of biblical research before we understand what Jesus exactly meant by his body and blood being bread and wine to be consumed.
Now, for our part, because of our unshakable faith that Christ is present in what we eat at Holy Communion, we emphasize paying utmost respect to the Blessed Sacrament. We demand the deepest devotion. We stress proper disposition. We require deliberate preparation. And rightly so that we do and we must. For how much closer could we and Jesus be united than by literally eating and drinking his body and blood? But on the other hand, and this we have to admit, sisters and brothers, that many of us Catholics tend to “over-protect” the Body of Christ. In the last few years, we’ve strung layers and layers of cordon sanitaire, isolating the Body of Christ from people who have most need of receiving him; shielding him, ‘ika nga, from the “sinners.” But in case we forget: why do you think Jesus used food and drink to designate himself? Food is universal. Food and drink must be made available to all. Everyone needs food and drink to survive—not just the sinless, the by-the-book, the “canonically valid” Catholics. Because we’ve over-emphasized the impediment of sin whenever we talk about Holy Communion, our theology of the Eucharist is grievance-based. And this has given many well-meaning people the sad and very wrong impression that Holy Communion is reward for the holy, while prohibition from it is punishment for the sinner—and not much more than that. You know, sisters and brothers, that’s all that Holy Communion has come down to for many Catholics, even for priests…
…When there is really a much bigger, much deeper, much more crucial meaning behind the Lord telling us to eat and drink him: that this Jesus was someone who always gave himself away. Totally. He offered himself to be consumed and poured out, so that everyone—every single one who cared to come to the banquet—might be fed and quenched. Now, is this our understanding of Holy Communion? Because the premise is quite simple: as we constantly eat the Lord’s body and drink his blood, we must eventually become whom we consume, and grow into his image and likeness; specifically, the image and likeness of food and drink that nourishes and quenches. Holy Communion, therefore, should make us people who give our body and blood away so that others may live and survive and be saved—the very same way the Bread of Life has been doing for us.
Because, dear sisters and brothers, if our only concern at receiving (or not receiving) Holy Communion at mass is a result of whether we went to confession or not—and yet we cannot be bothered into being bread and wine for others—then, God forbid, we might actually be just closet sabungeros, for whom the Body of Christ is only a magical, protective, fortune-conjuring, self-rewarding anting-anting.
*image from the Internet