Why Do We ‘Chew’ Jesus? A Six-year-old’s Catechesis on John 6

Leave it to my six-year-old son to bring me back to my senses – my “supernatural” senses – when it comes to the Eucharist.

In a fit of subdued rage toward the end of the communion rite on Holy Thursday, he whispered, “Dad, why do you hate Jesus?” Utterly baffled, I asked him why he would ever think I hated Jesus. “Because you are chewing Him!”. At least I had confirmation he is among the 31% who believe in the true presence!

But it showed me that that is not enough – at least for a six-year-old boy. I have no doubt that his Eucharistic metaphysics will mature over time. At the moment, however, – unsurprisingly – his real concern was that I was chewing Our Lord.

So, his question deserves a real response. Why do we “chew” Jesus?

Many of Jesus’s disciples were scandalized by his insistence that they “chew” (“munch,” “gnaw,” phageîn in Greek) his flesh (John 6:54-58). Scripture scholars disagree about the extent to which John’s choice of a word normally reserved for animal rather than human eating indicates a desire to emphasize the reality of Jesus’s flesh and blood in the Eucharist. Be that as it may, the word does seem fitting when we consider that Jesus had just told his disciples: “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51; notice “flesh” [sarx] rather than “body” [sōma]).

In the early history of the Church, Justin Martyr and Athenagoras understood the importance of responding to accusations of cannibalism directed at Christians. Athenagoras explained to the emperor Marcus Aurelius that Christians could only be guilty of cannibalism if their victim were dead, but Christians actually consume the living, resurrected flesh of Jesus.

With this in mind, I first reassured my son that we do not hurt Jesus by chewing him. But what really struck me was that the best answer I could think of was: “Because Jesus told us to.”

That response brought home to me the radical faith that underlies our participation in the Eucharist. Saint Thomas Aquinas brilliantly used Aristotelian categories to explain the unique metaphysical reality of the Eucharist in his doctrine of transubstantiation. Similarly, we may (indeed, we should) contextualize the Eucharist within the Jewish Passover ritual. Yet neither of these “proves” that the bread becomes Jesus’s flesh and the wine his blood. Aquinas’s “praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui”(“faith supplies aid to the weakness of the senses”) is inextricably tied to Paul’s fides ex auditu (“faith comes from hearing,” Rom. 10:17). In other words, it is only by listening to Jesus and trusting Him that we have any certainty at all about what the Eucharist is and what our participation in it means.

My son’s shocking question prompted me to contemplate more deeply the essence of the Eucharist. Why do we “chew” Jesus?

Quite simply, because it is a matter of life and death. When we are really hungry, we bite into whatever will sustain us with gusto. We gnaw at it. We tear at it with our teeth. When we are starving, getting food into our system is a matter of survival. Participating in the Eucharist is nothing short of spiritual survival.

The early Church fathers understood this well. They constantly described their relationship to the Eucharist as a “hunger,” a “yearning,” a “thirst.” “I hunger,” wrote Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “for the bread of God, the flesh (sarx) of Jesus Christ … I long to drink his blood, the gift of unending love.” Whether in preparation for a marathon, a job interview, or the SAT, we make sure we are well fed. “If Christ did not want to dismiss the Jews without food in the desert for fear that they would collapse along the way,” remarked Saint Jerome, “it was to teach us that it is dangerous to try to get to heaven without the Bread of Heaven.” We take a mighty risk in skipping Mass. If we were as attuned to our spiritual hunger as we are to our bodily hunger, we would rush to Mass to make sure we have enough spiritual energy to get through the week.

That said, we must remember that “chewing” the Eucharist in no way cheapens it. Jesus gave his very life so that we might have his flesh to eat and his blood to drink. He urges us to sink our teeth into it spiritually like starving animals devouring their prey physically. The simile may seem coarse until we contemplate the legend of the pelican treasured by several church fathers. A mother pelican (so it was thought) tears at her breast with her beak until blood flows to revitalize her children. Though bad zoology, it is superb theology. Jesus freely ascended the cross so that blood and water might gush from his side for our salvation and eternal life (cf. John 19:34).  

My son’s perfectly logical question underscores the importance of Eucharistic adoration, a privileged means for reminding us that the Eucharist is no ordinary food. I remember how my heart sank one day when a former pastor, responding to a parishioner’s question as to why we never celebrated eucharistic adoration in the parish, replied, “it presents too static a view of Jesus.” Another former pastor snapped at a similar question: “Jesus came to serve, not to be adored!” As if there were any conflict between adoring our Lord and consuming his flesh and blood! 

On Thursday, as the hosts were gathered into the ciborium and the acolytes lined up in procession, my son continued to mull over whatever feeble attempts I was making to respond to his question. He gazed intently at the words of the Pange Lingua as we wove our way to the chapel of repose. The incense, chant, candles, and monstrance made it clear this is no ordinary food. While I was pondering over what to say to him when we got to the car, the very ritual was already doing the work for me. Saint Augustine was right on the mark: “What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ, and the chalice is the blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction.”

Having knelt in veneration for several minutes before the tabernacle, we silently got up to leave. I could see the gears were still turning in my son’s head. “Dad, was that Jesus?” “Yes, son.” I explained that Jesus would remain there until we came back on Friday to commemorate the Lord’s Passion. “And then you will chew him again?” “That’s right.” “And then again on Easter?” “Yes, on Easter too.” “Wow!” he exclaimed, “Jesus really does love us! He is real!”

Wait…who’s teaching whom here?

Daniel B. Gallagher is the Ralph and Jeanne Kanders Senior Lecturer in Latin at Cornell University. He holds degrees in philosophy and theology from the Catholic University of America and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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Daniel B. Gallagher, a Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy at Ralston College, holds degrees in philosophy and theology from the Catholic University of America and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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