For the past few Sundays, and for at least two more, the Gospel readings have been from the “bread of Life’ discourse, where Jesus tells us that he is the bread of heaven. We see, at the end of the discourse that many of those who had followed him until this point turned away from him, being unable to accept the ‘hard saying’. Some of those present thought he was referring to cannibalism, others simply could not take the idea that he was giving his body and blood to us to eat. Nothing could be more repugnant to the sensibilities of a believing Jew than to be offered blood. From at least the sixteenth century, there have been those Christians who, in an attempt to distance themselves from the Church’s teaching, have maintained that we should read Jesus’ words only in a spiritual sense – after all – “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.:
This seems to mean interpreting the words thus: “By My life-giving flesh and blood I did not really mean flesh at all, for it could do you no good: I meant My spiritual, life-giving teaching.” But this explanation renders Our Lord’s strong insistence upon the figure of flesh and blood quite unintelligible. It is more in accordance with the whole context and the Greek words to understand “The flesh profiteth nothing” as equivalent to “Mere flesh, flesh of itself – profiteth nothing.” Then the whole verse will mean, “Mere flesh, as you naturally think of it, profits nothing. But the things I have spoken to you of – the flesh and the blood of the glorified Son of Man (Jn 6:62) – are something more than mere flesh and blood: they are spirit and (therefore) life.” …
Of course it remains true that the words of God are spiritual food and a real nourishment of the intelligence, as “the flesh and blood of Christ” are of the whole of mankind cf. Jer 15.16, Ezek. 3.1-3, Ps 19:10, Rev 10:9. Indeed it is a matter which needs very careful consideration that the sacramental feeding cannot profitably continue without the “reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting” of the word of God. Unless our intelligence is continually being spiritually nourished and enlightened, our whole nature is starved and withered, and the sacramental nourishment is comparatively ineffectual.
So, to read Jesus’ words as being merely symbolic, is not only to depart from the tradition of the Church, it is to explain them away. No one is suggesting that we do not need to nourish ourselves from the Scriptures, but to think this is all Christ means is to miss a huge part of what it has always been to be a Christian; it is also to miss the huge comfort which partaking of His precious body and blood bring to the penitent sinner.