Every once in a while, I have a moment in church where I realize the complete strangeness of whatever we’re doing. I bet you’ve all had moments like that too, or you will soon! I had one of these the other week at our 11:15 service. We sang a song during the Eucharistic Prayer that says, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” It’s a well-known hymn, but thanks to COVID I hadn’t sung it in a long time. And as we all stood there singing (singing in a group is also a funny thing to do by the way), I was struck by how strange it sounded. Since the early days of the church, Christians have been accused of being cannibals. And even though multiple thousands of years separate us from those early followers, The words to that hymn still sound strange on our lips. “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed, says the Lord.”
Then today in our Gospels we get the source of that statement, straight from the mouth of Jesus himself. If you haven’t noticed it, we’re now three weeks into a six-week long stint of hearing a lot about Jesus and bread in our Gospels. Today Jesus says the words “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
His words provoked the derision of his listeners then, just as they still cause us to pause and question now. The Gospel of John tells us that “the Jews began to complain about him,” saying to one another that they knew his father and mother personally, so how could he claim to have come from heaven? Here I want to make an important but tangential comment about the possibility of interpreting this passage in an anti-Semitic light. The community to which the Gospel writer John was writing was in the midst of a major conflict with the Jewish community from which it sprang. As we hear the texts today, it’s more responsible and accurate to translate “the Jews” as “the religious authorities” or “religious leadership.”1 We have to be careful with our words, especially when we know we stand in a line of tradition that’s sometimes been a proponent of anti-Semitic thought. As we hear the story of the religious people complaining about Jesus, it’s probably most honest to see ourselves in that confused and complaining role, rather than tempting ourselves into thinking the words don’t apply to us. The “religious insiders” then were certain about Jesus, and it blocked their minds and hearts from hearing a new message from him. So rather than thinking it doesn’t apply to us, Instead, we can ask ourselves how we might keep our ears open to hear new dimensions of Christ’s identity today?
Which brings me back to our sometimes-shocking experiences of worship. It’s a gift when these moments of disorientation and confusion come because it can shake us out of the rote patterns of repetition we might fall into through the years.
I had another experience of “liturgical shock” two years ago now. I was standing behind the altar in the Nave on Easter morning. I was about halfway through my pregnancy with our first son Abe, And as I held the bread up in the air, I said the ancient words of Jesus: “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Something happened in that moment. I’d heard those words for decades, and for that whole time, I’d always associated them with Jesus’ death. This makes contextual sense, of course, because they were the words he spoke at his last supper with his friends before his crucifixion the following day. But on that Easter morning, pregnant and with bread in hand, I heard these words referring not to death, but to birth.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this moment changed my faith. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and had women as clergy from an early age. I never grew up with the message that women’s bodies or voices weren’t welcomed in a sacred space. But I’d also never considered how Jesus’ ministry to us had strong maternal qualities to it. I’d never considered how the giving of his body and his blood had so much to do with the bodily functions of motherhood, with birthing and breastfeeding.
Now of course, as with nearly everything associated with so ancient a faith, there were others who were far ahead of me on this journey. As I read more on the subject, I came across a book by the professor Hannah Shanks called This is My Body: Embracing the Messiness of Faith and Motherhood.” In her book, she wrote that “as early as the second century, [renowned church father] Clement of Alexandria used images of pregnant [and nursing] women to explain how we relate to Jesus during the Eucharist.”2 Our patron saint Paul talked about feeding his congregants with breastmilk instead of solid food in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:2). And in his letter to the Galatians, he describes himself being “in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed” in his followers. (Gal. 4:19). In addition, “many monastics wrote of nursing from Christ’s breasts, and viewed themselves as carried within his womb or within his wounds from crucifixion. They regularly exhorted their abbots to model their behavior as leaders on the examples of women, midwives, and mothers.”3
This language and imagery has ebbed and flowed in popularity through the years, but it comes to us with direct relevance this morning. As Jesus tells us to drink his blood and eat his flesh, He does so not in a cannibalistic sense, But in a divinely maternal way. Just as mothers feed their children blood through the placenta in the womb, and as they feed their children their own milk after birth, So Jesus supplies us with nutrition and sustenance from his own body. Just as babies are held in the wombs of their mothers, so are we cradled in the body of Jesus. This is my body he says, broken for you. My blood, given for you. Amen.
 Shanks, Hannah. This is my Body, 92.
 Ibid, 93.