Eating God

Michael, a young anthropologist and collector of tribal art went out some years ago to Papua-New Guinea and lived for periods of time with a tribe. Each year he would go out and live with them to study their life. He was apparently a good and kind man, and the people of the tribe came to love him very much. To them, he had become a part of their lives and a member of their tribe. He was also different, tall and thin, straight-haired and blond. Eventually they came to adore him as some sort of divine visitor. But he kept going away, and they realized that someday he would go away and not come back. They decided they wanted to keep him with them forever. So they ate him.

This is a true story; I didn't make it up. The tribesfolk only admitted this years later, after they had come into contact with more westerners, and perhaps with Christian missionaries and heard about Jesus. They claimed they still had Michael with them, in them, because they had eaten him. I suspect these folk were in a better position, in some sense, to understand the feeding of the crowd that we hear about in today's gospel. They are closer to their body and to its functioning than we. They still have a sense of wonder about it that enables them to see that Michael really does become a part of them by their eating him. And we can probably learn form them about what we are doing here today, feeding on Jesus' body and blood.

This is worth some reflection on our part. We can look at eating as bodily worship, as mutual participation with what we eat. We break down the food into constituent parts and incorporate it into our bodies, into organs, blood, and skin. It becomes the source of energy that powers our movements, our feelings and our actions. It empowers our speech and love, our work and worship.

A poem by Gary Snyder illuminates this point of view using a biological meditation:

Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds
the fleshy sweetness packed
around the sperm of swaying trees
The muscles of the flanks and thighs of soft-voiced cows
The bounce in the lamb's leap
The swish in the ox's tail...
Eating roots grown swoll
inside the soil
Drawing on life of living
clustered points of light spun
out of space
hidden in the grape.
Eating each other's seed
ah, each other.
Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:
lip to lip.

And what if we do eat Jesus? Then the whole power of God is in us for God's work and worship. We participate in God's acts and moves, and God in ours. Like the bounce in the lamb's leap and the swish in the ox's tail, like the power of the sun hidden in the grape, so the power and love of God, all the redemptive love and sacrifice of Jesus, the healings and feedings, and his death and resurrection, are in us, filling our lives and empowering them.

God's hidden purposes take visible and actual form in our lives and we can find them in us. This is essentially what we do when we pray, if we converse with God. We listen to our hearts and thoughts, and we offer them to God to respond as God will. But we might also pay attention to our bodies as workers of prayer. For it is to our bodies that Jesus comes in his incarnation as bread and wine. We might spend some time attending to what the body does, breathing, beating the heart, digesting and the like. If we were to do this, we might become grounded in ourselves as physical beings, as animals, as God created us, and we might recover some sense of wonder about our bodies, our eating and drinking. God made our bodies to do those things, and all of our more "spiritual" life depends on this functioning of the body. Then, in recovering our grounding and wonder, in knowing ourselves incarnate, we would better know Jesus and worship him in his flesh and blood.

We are also transformed by eating God. Another snippet of Snyder, reflecting an Native American point of view, illustrates this:

Once every year, the Deer catch human beings. They do various things which irresistibly draw men near them: each one selects a certain man. The Deer shoots the man, who is then compelled to skin it and carry its meat home and eat it. Then the Deer is inside the man. He waits and hides in there, but the man doesn't know it. When enough Deer have occupied enough men, they will strike all at once. The men who don't have deer in them will be taken by surprise, and everything will change some. This is called "takeover from inside.">

So we have God in Christ taking over the world from within us. This is the formation of the Kingdom of God, the mission of the Church and it happens to us, for us, and in us, by our eating Jesus and having him with us forever. Mission means sending, and the Father sent Jesus to us as food, to be in us, moving and transforming our lives into God's in all that we do. This means that whatever we do, God is there, and we bring God to every situation. Indeed in feeding us with Jesus, God is sending us there. Thus the mission of the Church is not some special activity but our ordinary life, God with us to redeem our ordinary lives and all the persons whom we meet. And it means that everywhere we go, the Kingdom in us goes, and everyone we meet is a member of that Kingdom. As the food leaves no place in us unreached, so God in us reaches everywhere. Thus Jesus, the bread of life, is the true life of the world, eternal life with God, and that life will be in us as we leave here today, as we go about our mission. And like those who do not have deer in them, those who do not know God will be taken by surprise, and everything, God willing, will change some.