It can be said that there is a yearning for something – an object, a certain food or a drink – that is capable of giving us eternal life or eternal youth. It is rooted in the deepest recesses of the human heart. This desire has always been present; in the oldest poems we can find vestiges of that undeniable human impulse to overcome ourselves, our creaturely limits and in doing so, to rise above suffering and death and to reach for God in the Eucharist.
The human and earthly limitations which cause us so much distress and discomfort don’t lead us to rebellion and our desire to reach the infinite. This was the case of Gilgamesh, the king and central character of literature’s oldest epic poem. After losing his best friend, he said, disconsolate: “How could I keep silent; how could I achieve rest? He is now dust and so I will also die and and stay rigid on the ground forevermore.”
His whole being revolted at death. His heart longed for the immortality of the gods. He decided to embark on a journey to find the only man who had been granted eternal life. But after achieving his goal, the old immortal told him that his desire was impossible because it was a unique and unrepeatable gift. As a consolation, however, the old eternal could be revealed as a plant that had the power to rejuvenate people. The king then went after her, plunging into the deep sea as he had been directed. After finding it and before eating, he decided to take a bath, but as he did a sly serpent came and stole it, changing skin immediately. Gilgamesh wept disconsolately, perhaps accepting his inescapable destiny as a creature: old, suffering and destined to die jut like his dear friend.
The end of the story shows (with great wisdom) how Gilgamesh apparently has no other choice but to accept his condition. However, our desire for transcendence remains intact, forever scratching at our imaginations and agitating our hearts.
Is it all a game of illusions that we must suppress, this longing for eternity? Or, rather, does God have compassion and seek to satisfy that deep-seated desire that grows increasing intensity in our dreams and the whispers of our hearts? Is our vocation to live forever as kings dethroned and in exile? A frustration without resolution? Or, might the day come when we will be crowned and seated at the table of the King of Heaven?
Christianity proclaims the good news and gives us an answer of hope. God has such compassion for us. His mercy is infinite. The desire written on our hearts is not unsatisfiable. He did not create us to tease us or curse us. Man’s desire is rather the intuition of an event that is designed to be fulfilled; a consummation for which we were destined from all eternity. An event that has actually already taken place. This is the good news: God came to earth so that man might be capable of attaining God. God condescends to us because He loves us. God became human and walked the earth in the body of a man! Not in order to give us a plant that rejuvenates or a new food that satiates our physical hunger, like the manna from heaven that can only prolong our lives for a few years, no; He became incarnate rather to achieve the miracle of miracles. He came down to give himself as our food. For, as Augustine says, eating it as we are assimilated and transformed in Him, in God:
“I am the food of grown men; grow then, and you will feed on me. Nor will you change me into yourself like bodily food, but you will be changed into me.”
Behold the radical novelty! What an incredible event that is worthy of being believed, because it could never been imagined by the human mind. Christ’s Incarnation exceeds every pretension and possibility of comprehension. This awe-inspiring, terrible, beautiful mystery: God has become flesh and blood, to be immolated and transformed into nourishment of Communion, a drink of restoration of what had been scattered, God has made himself the smallest particle of the cosmos, consumable; to take and raise everything from within, from the depths. God becomes our nourishment – a hand to lift us up to God’s heights.
There is a Man, a fragment, who is paradoxically the whole. He radically affirms with an authority never seen before (or since): “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (Jn 6:51-54).
Christianity proclaims the Good News and gives us an encouraging answer. God takes pity. Our hunger and thirst for eternity are an authentic expression of a promise that has already been fulfilled in Christ; of a destiny which will reach its fullness when we attain heaven. God comes to us. Ancient civilizations were not so far off course when they created epic fables and oral traditions about immortality. Yes , only one man is and has been able to overcome death to reach eternity. What I never imagined (and never could have) is that that one man, being also God, could assume ourselves in His Body, making us one with Him, making us participants in His resurrection.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” – John 6:56