When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking towards him he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” He didn’t mean that Jesus was like a cute, fluffy little animal. He meant that Jesus would share the same fate as the lambs that were sacrificed at Passover.
It took a while for the closest followers of Jesus to realize His fate. Passover lambs were killed. Their blood was shed. His followers didn’t want to face this reality about Jesus, even when He told them point blank, “I’m going to have to suffer and die.” Peter basically said, “No way, Jesus! I won’t let that happen to you!” Jesus responded by rebuking Satan. Why? What was Satan up to? Satan was up to his old trick of denying God’s words, just like in Genesis. Satan told Adam and Eve, “You won’t die if you eat that fruit!” But sin did lead to death. And Satan was trying to say that Jesus didn’t need to die for our sins.
Even after Jesus died and rose from the dead his followers had a hard time accepting it. They just couldn’t wrap their brains around the idea that He literally had to be slaughtered and die, just like those Passover lambs. Eventually, Jesus and the Holy Spirit helped them understand.
There was still another fate that Jesus had to share with those Passover lambs. He would have to be eaten after He had been slaughtered. Again, His followers couldn’t wrap their brains around this reality. Even when He told His followers point blank several times that they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, they just didn’t get it. Again, Satan steps in to deny Christ’s words. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? This is a hard saying! Who can hear it?”
Not only did many of Christ’s followers leave Him at this point, but Satan entered into the one that would betray Jesus. This is where Judas left Him. Jesus just let them all walk away. He didn’t call them back and say, “Just kidding! You don’t really have to eat my flesh and drink my blood! It’s only a metaphor, people!”
Interestingly, people didn’t walk away from Jesus when He said things like, “I am the door,” or “I am the vine.” These were metaphors. Jesus didn’t follow up these metaphors with statements like, “My body is real wood,” or “My blood is real sap.” But He did say, “My flesh is real food,” and “My blood is real drink” when people were bothered by the idea of eating His flesh. Jesus was not speaking symbolically when he told them they must eat His flesh and drink His blood, and people knew it. That’s why they left Him.
First truth, hard to accept yet real: Jesus had to literally be slaughtered like a Passover lamb.
Second truth, hard to accept yet real: Jesus had to literally be eaten like a Passover lamb.
As far as the first truth goes, few Christians would deny that Jesus was literally slaughtered for our sins, just like a Passover lamb. That one is not so hard to see.
The second truth, however, still gives folks trouble. It’s just too much for some to believe that Jesus can literally feed us His actual flesh and blood. But, if His slaughter and shedding of blood were literal, why would our eating of Him be merely symbolic, especially since He so vehemently insisted that His flesh is “food indeed” and His blood is “drink indeed?” He is the literal Lamb of God, after all. Why wouldn’t He be consistent and complete His role as the Lamb of God in a literal way?
Perhaps the reason people balk is that it’s still “a hard saying.” We can easily see the “mechanics” of His slaughter. It’s not so hard to imagine Him bleeding on the cross. But, the method by which we literally eat His flesh and drink His blood takes a greater leap of faith. So, it’s easier to explain it away as mere symbolism. But Jesus certainly didn’t “pretend” to die on the cross. Why should we “pretend” to eat His flesh and drink His blood?
“Pretend” is exactly what I did during my twenty years away from Catholicism. I would participate in The Lord’s Supper at various churches, but I did so with an understanding that it was “only” a memorial service. It was similar to a memorial service on Veteran’s Day when one soberly remembers the sacrifices made by soldiers. Or, it was like offering a “toast” to the memory of a departed loved one. I was “pretending” to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus in order to help me imagine and recall His sacrifice. The bread and grape juice were simply “memory joggers.” But, Jesus did not say, “Unless you pretend to eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”
Something was amiss. Pretending to eat His flesh and drink His blood took no real faith. I might as well have been eating a birthday cake to remember someone’s birthday. I’m not suggesting that it was void of meaning. Of course, it was sobering, emotional and edifying to recall what Jesus had done for us. But, I was still only pretending to eat His flesh and drink His blood. That wasn’t what He instructed us to do.
I would never pretend to eat my breakfast, lunch and dinner in order to sustain my physical life. I would slowly wither away. So, why pretend to eat Jesus in order to sustain my spiritual life? The death of the Lamb of God was obviously very real. Eating the Lamb of God must also be real, just like at Passover. After all, if you didn’t really kill and really eat the Passover lamb, death followed. It had to be real and complete in order to be life sustaining.
Some may object that in John 6 Jesus said, “My words are spirit and life. The flesh profits nothing.” Doesn’t that mean that all this eating of His flesh is just symbolic? No. “Spirit” never means “symbolic” or “pretend.” Without the spirit of God, none of this is possible or life giving. “Spirit” is very real. “Spirit” is not a metaphor. “Spirit” brings life.
Additionally, it is strange for many to claim that the same flesh that Jesus gives “for the life of the world” should be the same flesh that “profits nothing.” It’s the flesh which profits nothing, not His flesh. “The flesh” is used elsewhere to signify our human understanding and lack of faith. “The flesh” is what causes people to walk away from eating “His flesh.” Jesus did not say, “My flesh profits nothing. He wants us to eat His flesh because it profits eternal life which is everything.
The Catholic Mass is not merely a memorial service to remind us of what Jesus did. It is partly that, but it is also the Supper of The Lamb. It is where we literally partake of the flesh and blood of the Lamb of God that was literally slain for our sins. At Mass we are provided real flesh and real blood, which is real food and real drink from the real Lamb of God all made possible by the real spirit of God. No pretending. We literally receive the glorified Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. We dwell in Him, and He in us, just as He promised in John chapter 6.
Before we partake of this glorious, miraculous meal, the priest echoes the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those called to the Supper of the Lamb!” This is Jesus. Like the Passover lamb, He died for real and we eat Him for real. As a result, He gives us real, eternal life. The Angel of Death passes over us.
So, when someone says, “Well…we don’t really eat His body and drink His blood. That’s just symbolic.” My response is, “Was His death real? Did He really shed His blood? Did He really give His flesh for the life of the world or did He just symbolically die? Did the Israelites really eat the Passover lamb, or did they just kill it and then pretend to eat it? Do you really believe that the flesh of Jesus, which He gave for the life of the world, profits nothing?”