A scriptural fundamentalist is one who takes each word of the Bible as the literal truth. Consequently, as we read the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis and it speaks of the earth and all of created reality, taking place in ‘seven days’ – for the scriptural literalist – creation indeed took place in seven days, regardless of what science might posit. We Catholics, however, have a much more nuanced approach to how God’s truths are conveyed through His revealed word in the Bible. While we do indeed hold that the Scriptures are the revealed Word of God, we acknowledge that His Word comes to us in human words and images, conditioned by the time and culture when it was written. Consequently, most Catholic scripture scholars would state that the core truth that the creation narratives were conveying in Genesis was not the scientific dynamics of how the world and created reality came to be, but the far more important truth that God is the author of all creation; that what is created by God’s hand is ‘good,’ and that humanity images the very goodness of God Himself. We Catholics leave it to science to work out the various theories of cosmic creation and the billions upon billions of years by which it came about.
With this in mind, I have always been mystified by how Biblical fundamentalists might so literally interpret Genesis but when it comes to the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, the chapter that we have been focusing on these past few Sundays, literalism gives way to viewing what the Lord said poetically, metaphorically and symbolically. In other words, when the Lord tells us today:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
So often I hear my Biblical literalist friends object that Jesus really didn’t mean that! He was speaking metaphorically, symbolically or poetically, merely to capture the attention of his hearers.
My sisters and brothers, we Catholics together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, have, for nearly 2000 years taken these life-giving words of Jesus as the literal truth. It is precisely this teaching that informs and gives breadth and context to the meal that Jesus shared the night before He died. For in the midst of the Jewish Passover meal, Jesus would leave to His followers and would gift the Church, a lasting memorial of His presence in the simple earthly elements of Bread and Wine. While our Catholic theology on the Eucharist has wrestled down through the centuries with the question, ‘how,’ this can be through such revered terms as ‘transubstantiation,’ the core truth, the ‘why’ of so great a gift, should never be forgotten. Just as the manna given by God’s hand to the Israelites sustained them in their desert journey, so too, the gift of the Lord’s Body and Blood, his risen and substantial presence in the Holy Eucharist, sustains and gives us courage and strength in our pilgrimage through this life to the next.
While we refer to one’s last communion by the beautiful term, viaticum – literarily, ‘food for the journey,’ in a very real sense every reception of the Holy Eucharist, is indeed ‘food for our journey.’ For, as the Lord has promised, it is his abiding friendship and real presence that will companion us through this life to the life that will have no end.