One of the bumper stickers we used to see here in the Bible Belt said: "Jesus said it, I believe it and that settles it!"
The idea is that every word and every detail in the Bible should be taken at face value, literally. We Catholics regard the Bible as sacred too, but we know Scripture must be interpreted in context and according to the intent of the original author.
When we read the letters of St. Paul, it's important to remember that we're reading someone else's mail. When we read the Psalms we're reading poetry. Genesis is not a science book. In the Gospels, we come across a variety of literary forms, each of which contains clues as to Jesus' intent and thus how they are to be read. When a story starts "The Kingdom of God is like … (say, a mustard seed), you know Jesus is using figurative language to make a point.
By contrast, whenever Jesus says "Amen, amen I say to you ..." we know that Jesus wants to be taken literally, at his word. And there is only one place in the entire Bible where Jesus says "Amen, amen I say to you" (or as one unfortunate translation has it: "I solemnly assure you"). There is only one place where he says this four times in a single speech: the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, which we are reading this week.
He starts out with "Amen, amen I say to you, you are not looking for me because you have seen signs, but because you have eaten your share of loaves." And then "Amen, amen I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from the heavens; it is my Father who gives you the real heavenly bread..." And "Amen, amen I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life … the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." And then finally, "Amen, amen I say to you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." Jesus says "Amen, amen I say to you" not once, not twice, but four times! If there's anything to be taken literally in the Bible, this is it.
As we gather for this Vocations Awareness Day Mass, we recall that Jesus insists on being taken literally because he knows that many will find it hard to believe in the Eucharist and thus his call to the priesthood, which is so necessary to make the Eucharist available to us.
Every time someone raises an objection Jesus has the opportunity to back-pedal, to say "no, no, no, you're taking me too literally; this is just an image, just symbolic, not to worry!" But instead Jesus just pours it on all the more; in effect, "If you have a problem with that, wait till you hear this!" A problem with eating his flesh? "Amen, amen I say to you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you!" Jesus knows what he's saying and he means what he's saying; now the ball's in our court.
Years ago best friends would cut their fingers and touch them to each other so that a drop of each one's blood entered the veins of the other, thus making them blood brothers and sisters, so to speak, even though they had different parents. So also, through the Eucharist consecrated by priests at Mass, you and I become real blood brothers and sisters of Jesus: his divine blood — and since blood is life, his immortal life — now flowing in our veins.
That's why we call it Communion: union with Jesus and with each other because his flesh has become our flesh. Blood brothers and sisters of each other because of the same divine blood flowing in our veins.
"Amen, amen I say to you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink ..."
Let us pray that the Lord will call some of you to the priesthood, which makes our reception of this greatest gift possible. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.” And in this, priests celebrating the Mass obviously have a crucial role in God’s plan.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily April 23.
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