Maybe it’s the oppressive southern heat and humidity we felt over the past weeks, but in summer my thoughts always turn to Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern American fiction writer who died a little over 50 years ago. Flannery O’Connor was a devout “pre-Vatican II” Roman Catholic, and her stories and novels employ highly symbolic characters and incidents to advance deeply theological arguments. In an essay she once described the problem many readers have with symbols and symbolism:
Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader—sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated. They seem to think that it is a way of saying something that you aren’t actually saying, and so if they can be got to read a reputedly symbolic work at all, they approach it as if it were a problem in algebra. Find x. And when they do find or think they find this abstraction, x, then they go off with an elaborate sense of satisfaction and the notion that they have “understood” the story. Many students confuse the process of understanding a thing with understanding it. [“The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” from Mystery and Manners]
If you’ve ever taught or studied literature, you know that symbols tend to take on a life of their own. Even those of us who think we understand how symbols work often want to nail them down and permaplaque them into one fixed meaning. This is not going to be a sermon about the Confederate battle flag, but I will observe that the disagreements about what that flag means to different people prove Flannery O’Connor’s point. Some people say that the flag symbolizes racism. Other say it represents tradition. The point is it represents both and probably a lot of other things besides. That’s how symbols work. We don’t understand them by solving for x. We understand them by opening ourselves to the range of all their possible meanings.
The same could be said for the Eucharist. Today is the first of several Sundays over the course of the summer in Year B which we preachers dread—when we immerse ourselves in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, and Jesus’s famous “bread of life” discourse. Last week we heard tell of how Jesus fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, a story with Eucharistic overtones occurring in all four gospels. In today’s passage, the crowd follows Jesus after that feeding and essentially asks him for more food. Jesus replies that he—not the loaves and fishes—is the bread of life. God may have given the Exodus Jews manna in the wilderness, and Jesus may have fed five thousand with bread and fish, but these miracles were not really about literal, physical food. As he says to the somewhat peckish crowd,
Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6: 24-35]
I have been a priest for almost forty years now, and over the course of my working life I’ve had several repeating pastoral conversations. One of them always rises near the top. When taking communion, people want to know if they’re understanding it correctly. They want to know what it means, and they’re worried that when they’re taking communion they’re not making the right mental sense of it. In Flannery O’Connor’s words, they wonder if they’re properly solving for x.
There are, of course, almost as many ways to understand the Eucharist as there are Christian traditions. Roman Catholics emphasize transubstantiation, the notion that the bread and wine of communion become the literal body and blood of Christ. (A Roman Catholic priest friend of mine says that the real miracle is believing that those gummy wafers are actually bread.) Anglicans and Lutherans emphasize what we call the “Real Presence” of Christ in the sacrament. The more Protestant Christians emphasize that the bread and wine are simply a way to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In some ways these sacramental disagreements mirror the scriptural arguments over the meaning and identity of Jesus. Is he a preacher, teacher, and healer? Is he the Messiah? Is he God incarnate? In John’s gospel, those who pursued Jesus to ask for more bread and fish wanted to get into an argument with him over what it all meant. But notice that Jesus does not fall into that trap. He does not lecture them about the nature and meaning of symbols and sacraments. He merely tells them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” To which they reply, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor tells of attending a dinner party with another great writer, Mary McCarthy, whom O’Connor rather derisively called “a Big Intellectual”. Mary McCarthy went on and on about how she had left the church when young and how she now had come to see the Eucharist “as a symbol, and implied it was a pretty good one.” In Flannery O’Connor’s words, here is what came next:
I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable. [The Habit of Being]
“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Perhaps not the most elegant expression of sacramental theology, but you get the point. Just as those who followed Jesus contested with each other about his real identity, so we Christians have argued for centuries about what we are doing when we gather around this table and share bread and wine together in Jesus’s name. Like readers solving for x, we have focused too narrowly on what the bread and the wine of communion “mean”. We think of these elements as symbols—that they stand for something else—some version of Jesus’s physical and spiritual presence.
But remember what happens in today’s Gospel. Jesus does not tell us that the loaves and fishes are the bread of life. He tells us that he is the bread of life—”that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” When we gather together around God’s table and share the bread of life, we are not—symbolically or otherwise—eating Jesus. We are eating with Jesus. This meal is neither an algebra problem nor a ritual sacrifice. When we gather at this table we come into the presence of the bread of life, and that means we engage Jesus himself. We almost always mistake the symbol for the thing it represents. The point of this meal is not what happens to the bread. The point of this meal is our shared fellowship with Jesus. We make him present not only in breaking bread but in our ongoing work of prayer and faithful action in the world. Eucharist is not just a ritual meal. It is a way of living.
“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” You and I think too much. The Eucharist is not a problem to be solved. It is not a set of propositions about God and us. The Eucharist is a meal, a time together in which we are fed by and with Jesus. We are not eating Jesus. We are eating with Jesus. When we gather together around God’s table, Jesus is with us in the room. Like those who followed Jesus to get more loaves and fishes, and like the Exodus community in the wilderness, we become confused and our attention wanders to the vehicles of Jesus’s presence rather than to the presence itself. As Flannery O’Connor declared, “this is all I will ever be able to say about it…except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable.”
Don’t get distracted, and don’t overthink it. God invites you to this table, so that you, along with others gathered here and around the world, may bask in the presence of Jesus. It isn’t about the bread. It’s about the bread of life. Jesus is within and among us. His meal nourishes and sustains us. In his presence we will never hunger or thirst. If we let them, symbols and sacraments will always confuse us. But if we open ourselves up to their power they can transform us. We will never entirely get it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not about what we think. It’s about who we’re with and who we are in his presence. Come to the table with Jesus. His presence among us will do the rest. Amen.