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It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. —Gospel of John, chapter six

The Spirit hath done much for our salvation, by means of the flesh. —St. Augustine

In the words of His disciples, Jesus’ teaching in the Bread of Life discourse is “a hard saying; who can hear it?” In this passage of the Gospel of John, we find Jesus repeatedly insisting that His followers eat His flesh and drink His blood, lest they have no life in Him. What could this possibly mean?

In an effort to ease the force of this strange command, one possible response is to cite the verse above. After Jesus claims that His followers must eat His flesh, He goes on to tell them that the flesh profiteth nothing. Thus, in His previous words about eating His flesh, surely Jesus must have been speaking figuratively. Crisis averted.

Not so fast, interjects St. Augustine: “Join the spirit to the flesh, and it profiteth much: for if the flesh profited not, the Word would not have become flesh, and dwelt among us . The Spirit hath done much for our salvation, by means of the flesh.” Augustine argues that when Jesus states that the “flesh profiteth nothing,” surely He must be referring to His flesh as considered apart from His spirit (“a carcass that was to be cut up and sold in the shambles, not of a body animated by the spirit”). Indeed, had Jesus been insisting that His followers eat His lifeless corpse, such a thing would be profitless. On the contrary, Augustine points out, Jesus was insisting that His followers eat of His living flesh. Of course, the logic behind Augustine’s interpretation is that if Christ had meant that His living flesh profited nothing, then His Incarnation itself would be rendered profitless. And Christmas would be meaningless. For what is the Incarnation if not a resounding affirmation of the profit which the flesh can indeed bring?

We are left then with an inkling of why Jesus would ask His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Somehow the Christmas mystery is involved. As St. Hilary explains, “This then is our principle of life. While we are in the flesh, Christ dwelleth in us by His flesh. And we shall live by Him, according as He liveth.” Christ wants to indwell His followers completely. This entails not only a spiritual indwelling—Christ’s spirit dwelling in our soul—but a physical one. Because we are embodied creatures, Christ also wants His flesh to indwell our flesh. “The Word,” Augustine writes, “being the principle of life in all things, having taken up soul and body, cleanseth the souls and bodies of those who believe.”

Thus, the Eucharist is the completion of the Christmas mystery. We humans are made of body, blood, and soul. The Word became flesh and then sought—indeed, seeks —to indwell us body, blood, and soul— and divinity .

And this last Reality of His indwelling is the reason why Christ’s flesh is no ordinary flesh. As Blessed Theophylact writes, “For it is not the flesh of man simply, but of God: and it makes man divine, by inebriating him, as it were, with divinity.” This call—that of theosis —is indeed the essence of the Christmas spirit.

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