Tumbling in the Sand
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” – John 6: 56
In ancient thought (particularly Greek thought), the body was seen as a microcosm of the universe. What this means is that the body wasn’t seen as distinct from the world that surrounded it—rather what was going on around a body influenced what was going on inside a body. Actually, that’s not quite right: it’s even more connected than that: what was going on around a person made the person. The body and the universe were, in essence, one—the differences between people and things having to do with their unique placement in the universe.
So, this might be a little confusing—especially to our individualistic notions today: the idea that we are distinct, independent, and free to be ourselves, separate from others. However, biologically, our individualism is pretty shaky. What we breathe, what we eat, what we expose our bodies to, what communities we are surrounded with, what the landscape around us looks like—those things have a direct effect on who and what we are. Talking purely biologically, gene expression is very much environmentally regulated.
To take it out of ancient philosophy and contemporary biology, we can see this understanding in popular culture in one way in particular: our diets. “You are what you eat,” the popular phrase goes. Whatever you put into your body as food is what your body uses as building blocks to make you. Obviously, we don’t like this: it would be great to eat tasty junk and still be healthy, but we know better. We know that how we eat affects our health, our weight, our skin, our energy levels, our mental acuity, our emotional health—really everything that makes us us. We really are what we eat.
So, it is really interesting that in John’s gospel, Jesus expects his followers to eat him. In this action of eating Christ—which we claim we do in Communion—our body incorporates Christ into us and we become Christ—or at least a little bit more Christ. Which is why, by the way, I sometimes say during communion distribution, “Receive what you are, the body of Christ.” It’s a very material way to think about something that could be viewed as “spiritual.” But then again, since when is spirituality not incarnational? material, even?
But, I have to think that Jesus isn’t just referring to this biological process by which what we eat becomes us. Rather, I wonder if what he is talking about here is meant to expand outward—by eating the meal, we are filling ourselves with Christ, but we are also surrounding ourselves by a whole community that is becoming Christ-like. And doing that—being fully filled and surrounded with the holy (which is incarnated by Christ and Christ’s community), we become microcosms of the divine.