“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.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors
ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58 – NRSV)
1. In the time of St Augustine a beggar was considered especially worthy of alms if he/she could recite a Psalm. Travellers carried verses of the Gospels on them as protection on the way. Formal meetings of the
Church typically enthroned the Book of the Gospels. The Word of God – most especially the Gospels – were accepted and reverenced as the Presence of Jesus Christ in the midst of the assembly.
2. In the 12th century an intense cult of the Blessed Sacrament developed. The consecrated host was the focus, with the emphasis on Christ “whole and entire” in the bread. This movement was accompanied by the desire to see. It was during this time, for example, that the practice of elevating the host during the Mass was introduced.
3. In 1209 Juliana of Liège, an Augustinian nun, allegedly saw the gleaming disc of the moon , but it had a dark spot on it and she was told – in the vision – this represented the lack of a feast of the Eucharist in the liturgical calendar. The local bishop introduced such a feast in this diocese of Liège in 1246. In 1264, Pope Urban IV, who had been archdeacon in the diocese of Liège, extended the feast to the whole Church. Today
this feast is called The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.” More commonly it is simply called Corpus Christi.
4. This Feast is a time for joyous thanksgiving for the Eucharist. The Eucharist is pre-eminently an event of the community. The gathering or assembly – ekklēsia – celebrates the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. This is why we say “the Eucharist shows itself to be the source and apex of the whole work of preaching the Gospel” (Second Vatican Council, “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests,” 5).
5. As we celebrate this Feast with joy and gratitude, we would do well to remember two particular truths of our Tradition.
a. Firstly, the Presence of Jesus Christ is there in the Gospel too – especially when it is proclaimed in the Liturgical Assembly – and must be revered as such. Note the ritual that surrounds the proclamation of
the Gospel: The proclaimer greets the people, “The Lord be with you.” The people respond to the proclaimer, “And also with you.” Then the proclaimer signs the Book of the Gospels with the sign of the Cross and invites the people to acclaim the Presence of the Risen Lord, “A reading from the Gospel according to …… ” The people then acclaim the Presence of the Risen Lord, “Glory to you Lord!” At the end of the proclamation, the proclaimer says, “The Gospel of the Lord.” The people again acclaim the Presence of the Risen Lord, “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.”
b. Secondly, in the time of St Augustine and until the 12th century, the only reason to save the consecrated bread was so that those not present in the assembly – especially the sick – could receive that bread later. They did not know adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. That emerged in the 13th century, as indicated above. When the Liturgical Assembly celebrates the Eucharist, we still save some of the consecrated bread
to take it to the sick. But we also save some of the consecrated bread and it becomes a particular focus of prayer. The adoration of the Blessed Sacrament gets whatever validity it has from the ecclesial event of the Eucharist. That adoration should take us back to the community and the event that is the source and apex of the community’s life.
This Gospel text has attracted much scholarly attention and much disagreement as to its meaning. We must be careful not to be simplistic in our reading of the text.
We could note, at the outset, that everywhere else in the Christian Scriptures (Mark. 14:22; Matthew 26:26–29; Luke 22:14–23; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26) when the Eucharist is referred to, the Greek word sōma – ie “body” – is used.
In this text from John, it is quite striking that he uses the Greek word word sarx – ie “flesh” – six times. He does not use the word soma at all here.
We can note further that, in the Prologue of John’s Gospel the same word, sarx, is used : “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace
and truth …. in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:14 & 1:4).
It seems reasonable to think of this text as being more generally about the Incarnation than the Eucharist as such, though of course the eucharistic theme is there.
For John, Jesus is the source of life. He repeatedly says this – eg 10:11 & 15; 11:51–52; 15:13; 17:19; 18:14; see also 13:37–38. He uses different metaphors in proclaiming this truth – eg in his conversation with the woman at the well he speaks of “the water” that he will give “welling up to eternal life” (see John 4:14) and as the “shepherd” he says he has come that “they might have life and have it to the full” (see John 10:10). He declares: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
This gift of life in Jesus is seen as the fulfilment of what was begun in the Exodus Event. In the Feast of the Passover, the people killed and ate the Passover Lamb as a ritual recalling the Exodus and their liberation at the hand of God. So John the Baptist declares: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Jesus’ challenge to the religious leaders is to see in him what is foreshadowed in the Passover Lamb.
Michael Whelan SM
“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” (Flannery O’Connor, From a letter to ‘A’, December 16, 1955, In Sally Fitzgerald, editor, The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, 125.)