In a book on physiology published in 1826, Anthelme Brillat-Saverin wrote, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” It took almost 100 years for this statement to be refined when in 1932 the Bridgeport Telegraph, in an advertisement for United Meat Markets, made the claim “Ninety percent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.”
I learned this the hard way back in 1998 when, over the course of a few weeks I suffered a series of gall bladder attacks. I didn’t know what was happening or why, but after the second one I went to see my doctor. He asked me what I had had to eat in the twenty-four hours leading up to the episode. I hadn’t really thought about my diet much, but having to lay it out for another person was as painful as a public confession: a candy bar for breakfast, fast-food cheeseburger and fries for lunch, and a pizza for dinner. You are what you eat and what I ate made me a gall bladder attack waiting to happen. I may not have the best of diets even today, but it is vast improvement on twenty years ago.
You are what you eat. I think if Jesus knew of this phrase he would have built it into today’s gospel reading. “I am the bread of life. Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you do not have life within you.”
John’s gospel is different from the other three in terms of style and thinking. This is especially clear when it comes to Eucharistic theology. The other three gospels ground the Eucharist in the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shares with his disciples the evening before he is crucified. Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and shares it with his friends, saying, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise with the wine, he gives thanks and shares it, saying, “This is my blood which is shed for you. Drink it in remembrance of me.” Linking the meal with the Cross ties the Eucharist to the Atonement, Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world. With this as its theological grounding, the Eucharist is a penitential moment where participants confess, repent, and receive forgiveness.
This was my understanding as I began seminary. I came to the Eucharist week in and week out confessing my sins and promising to do better, only to return the next Sunday to confess the same sins and shortcomings. The Eucharist became a torturous experience making me feel more and more unworthy every time I participated in it.
The gospel writer John knew a lot of people just like me; people who were coming to communion for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not for renewal. So he grounds his Eucharistic theology not in the Last Supper but in the feeding of the 5,000. John talks not about Christ’s body broken, but about the bread of heaven, the bread of life.
For John, the Eucharist is an infusion of divine life. At the beginning of his gospel he writes “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And now Jesus says, “If you eat my flesh you have life.” So, if you are what you eat, when you receive communion you receive the eternal Word. You receive life.
I recall vividly how this Eucharistic theology came alive in me. I enrolled at Virginia Seminary and was sent to interview with a priest to see if he would supervise me in what was called “field education.” This involved working and worshipping at the parish ten hours a week while being trained by the priest. Well, we hit it off right away and launched into a two-year relationship that enhanced my life and ministry in innumerable ways. The first Sunday I worshipped there I knelt at the rail in my typical penitential mood and held out my hands to receive communion. The priest put the wafer in my hand and held my hand for a brief moment the way I hold yours when I give you communion. I looked up at him and he was looking down at me with a warm smile on his face. He said, “Keith, the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” No one had ever called me by name at the communion rail before. There was something about that, and the touch, and the smile, and the words “Bread of heaven” that broke through my penitential spirituality and broke me open. It was for me a moment of incredible joy because I realized for the first time in the Eucharistic moment God loves me and gives life to me.
In truth, the Eucharist is both a penitential moment as well as a celebration of the life God gives to us. It is not one or the other. I suspect many people come to this moment as I once did, exclusively focused on the penitential. If this is true for you, I invite you to shift your spirituality to the bead of heaven giving life to the world. You are what you eat.