Raise your hand if remember the incredibly hysterical and spot on book series, Amelia Bedelia. I loved them growing up. I recall one where Amelia went to a school and was told to plant the bulbs with the children, meaning tulip bulbs. Amelia, in true form, has the children unscrew all the light bulbs to plant instead.
We have similar experiences in our house. Small children are so literal, it trips me up some times. One day, I asked Rosie if she wanted some plain crackers. Now, you have to understand that from before their birth, my children are wired for airplanes. Their father is, after all, a pilot. They have lived on very high air traffic bases their whole lives. They wake up to the sound of jet engines, spend the day watching a variety of aircraft circle the pattern and fall asleep to night sorties and engine tests.
So, what do you think Rosie heard when I asked her if the wanted plain crackers? Plane crackers. As in, airplane shaped crackers. Oh the drama, oh the tragedy and hysterics that ensued from John and Rosie after that misstep. Needless to say, when I ask if they want regular ol’ crackers we call them “simple” crackers. It was easier to explain. Once they start reading we will re-visit the topic, hopefully with less meltdowns.
Another such moment happened at Mass this week. In the Gospel reading Jesus said:
Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.
For on him the Father, God, has set his seal (John 6:27)
After reading that (and the title of this post, hint hint), you may be able to guess which work caught John’s attention. Yes, seal. Obviously seals of all kinds inhabit the sea near Capernaum. It was pretty funny and required some quick whispered explanations. John still isn’t quite sure what kind of seal Jesus saw, but we did clarify that it wasn’t the seals from the zoo.
John’s literal understanding of words at this stage reminded me of my post about having faith like a child. It also got me thinking about literal versus figurative language. Since we were at Mass, this particular thought train brought me to the Eucharistic prayer.
In the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke – called synoptic because they are all similar and based on similar sources, sometimes even the same source – see more here) we hear Jesus say exactly and specifically, “This is my body.” and “This is my blood.” If we are to have faith, and perhaps ears, like a child, then Jesus’ meaning can not be mistaken. Jesus told his disciples that the bread and wine truly became his body and blood, the food and drink of the new covenant. In the Gospel of John (where our Gospel readings from last week and this week came from), Jesus tells his followers in a series of talks that unless they eat the flesh of the Son of Man, they will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (John 6). Jesus is very specific, even clarifying and re-stating this teaching when queried about it.
The mystery of the Eucharist is a tough mystery to grapple with. How can bead and wine change? How can we be expected to eat flesh and drink blood? The first important thing to remember is that it is a mystery. We will never fully understand the incredible grace we are participating in each liturgy. Second, we have multiple Scripture accounts of the same words of Jesus. This was a community where oral tradition, the stories told, were where records were preserved. Very little was written down and the Gospels were not written as a play-by-play of Jesus’ life. Our earliest Gospel (Mark) was probably written at the earliest, 50 C.E. That’s a full 20-25 years after Jesus’ death. 20 years is a long time for an oral story to change (remember the game “Telephone” from when you were a kid?). But we have the same words of Jesus, written by 3 different authors in 3 different places, plus the extended theology of John. Pretty convincing stuff. Finally, our understanding has not changed over the course of the whole Church. The Eucharist we celebrate today was celebrated by the earliest Christians. We see it in the writings of St. Paul. We also see it in the writings of St. Justin Martyr, a Christian living in Rome and writing around 150 C.E. If you don’t click on any other links in this post, click on this one. Justin writes about what the liturgy looked like in Rome roughly 55 years after the latest written book in the Bible. The consistency with the liturgy we just celebrated this weekend is, for me, beyond words. The liturgy we celebrate today is firmly founded in the traditions and teachings of the apostles. If they took Jesus literally, I think it’s a good bet we should too.