“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)
It is useful, when reading this extended chapter 6 on the “bread of life”, to hear it against the back drop of the beginning of John’s Gospel, just after the Prologue: “The opening events of (John’s) Gospel …. Are contained within one week of which almost every day is noticed; it culminates in the manifestation of Christ’s glory.” (Footnote to John 2:1 in the Jerusalem Bible.) John situates Jesus firmly within the tradition of the Exodus. He builds towards a dramatic moment by telling us what happened day by day, perhaps echoing the days of creation in Genesis 1: the “first day” (John 1:19 – the witness of John the Baptist), the “second day” (John 1:25 – John the Baptist sees and names Jesus “the Lamb of God”), the “third day” (John 1:35 – John the Baptist again sees and names Jesus, this time his disciples are introduced to Jesus) and the “fourth day” (John 1:43 – Jesus meets Philip). At the conclusion to this conversation with Philip we are given a strong hint of where the drama is headed: “I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). “Three days later” (John 2:1) we have the “first sign” – the miracle of the water-into-wine at the wedding feast in Cana. John then sums up with an unmistakable reference to the Exodus Event: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11-12). Francis Moloney writes: “Fundamental background to these days, which close in 2:11 with the revelation of the doxa of Jesus to the disciples, is the description of the gift of the Law in Exodus 19. After the people’s confession of their preparedness to do all that YHWH commanded (cf. Exod 19:7–9), YHWH tells Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow … and prepare for the third day, because on the third day …. YHWH will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people’ (19:10–11). Moses obediently tells the people, ‘Prepare for the third day’ (v. 15). The description of the gift of the Law then begins: ‘On the morning of the third day ….. there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud ….. on the mountain’. The glory of God is revealed ‘on the third day’.” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 50.)
The expression, “the third day”, has a confident even triumphant ring to it.
Again Francis Moloney writes:
“Jesus gives his flesh to eat (vv. 52–59). The question that emerges from the dispute among ‘the Jews’ is a rejection of Jesus’ outrageous suggestion: ‘How …. can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (v. 52). But it allows Jesus to conclude his discourse on his perfection of the Mosaic gift of bread from heaven through his gift of himself as the true bread from heaven. Unable to go beyond the physical, ‘the Jews’ by their question misunderstand Jesus’ promise. Jesus insists on a gift of flesh and blood for life by stating negatively (v. 53) and positively (v. 54) that whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood of Jesus, the Son of Man, has eternal life now and will be raised up on the last day. The midrashic play on the verb ‘to eat’ provided by the Exodus passage in v. 31 has reached its high point. ‘Flesh’ and ‘blood’ emphasize that it is the incarnate life and very real death of the Son that are lifegiving food. Only the physical body of a human being produces flesh and blood. The argument of vv. 25–51 continues into vv. 52–59, especially in Jesus’ words that point to the resolution of a series of promises (cf. vv. 12–13, 27, 35, 51c). Jesus will provide a food for the life of the world, and that food is his flesh and blood. As the ancestors of Israel were nourished by the gift of the Torah, Jesus will nourish the whole world with the gift of himself. The people of Israel were nourished by eating the manna, perennially recalled in the nourishment provided for them by their total receptivity to and absorption of the Law. Now ‘the Jews’ are told of the absolute need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man. Unless they eat the flesh and drink the blood …. of the Son of Man they have no life (v. 53); whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood …. of Jesus has eternal life (v. 54). The shift from the more respectable verb ‘to eat’ (phagein) to another verb that indicates the physical crunching with the teeth (trōgein) accentuates that Jesus refers to a real experience of eating. Hints of the Eucharist continue to insinuate themselves into the words of Jesus (see below). Flesh is to be broken and blood is to be spilled. Violence has been in the air since Jesus’ behavior on the Sabbath led ‘the Jews’ to initiate a process that would lead to his death (5:16–18). Jesus now associates the separation of flesh and blood in a violent death as the moment of total giving of himself. Jesus, the Son of Man, will give of his whole self for the life of the world (6:51c) by means of a violent encounter between himself and his enemies (1:5, 11; 2:18–20; 3:14; 5:16–18) in which his body will be broken and his blood will be poured out (6:53–54). This is the ongoing presence of Jesus in the gathered klasmata (vv. 12–13), the enduring gift that the Son of Man will give, the food that will not perish (v. 27) but will forever satisfy all hunger and thirst (v. 35).
“The Passover context must not be forgotten. As once Israel ate of the manna in the desert and was nourished by adhesion to the Law given at Sinai, so now the world is summoned to accept the further revelation of God in the broken body and spilled blood of the Son of Man. In this way all will have life, now and hereafter (vv. 53–54). These claims are further developed through vv. 55–57. Earlier parts of the discourse are recalled as Jesus insists that his flesh really is food …. and his blood really is drink ….. This play on words recalls Jesus’ promise of the brōsis (food) that the Son of Man would give (v. 27), and his claim that over against all other bread from heaven, and especially the gift of the Law from heaven, the Father gives ‘the true bread from heaven’ ….. Jesus is the true bread from heaven (v. 35). On the basis of the entire discourse Jesus lays claim to his flesh and blood as authentically …. food and drink. The midrashic explanation of v. 31 continues: through a total absorption (trōgein is again used) of the revelation of God made available through the bloody death of Jesus, believers will come to a mutuality in which they live in Jesus and Jesus lives in them (v. 56). This mutual indwelling (menein is used; cf. 15:4–7) flows from the union that exists between the Father and the Son (v. 57). Jesus’ words play on the verb ‘to live’ (zōein). He refers to the Father as ‘the living Father’ (ho zōn patēr) who has sent his Son who has life in him because of the intimacy between the Father and the Son. If the one who sends is ‘living’, then the one who is sent lives because of the one who sent him ….. He thus has authority to pass on life to those who accept the revelation of the Father in the Son (v. 57). The idea of the reception of the revelation of God in and through the Son is not new (cf., for example, 3:11–21, 31–36), but the imagery has been changed by the Passover context. No longer does Jesus speak of ‘belief in’ (cf. 3:12, 15, 18, 36), but of ‘the one who eats me’ ….. The expressions are parallel. As throughout the Gospel, unconditional commitment to the revelation of God in and through Jesus leads to life here and hereafter: the one who eats the flesh of Jesus will live because of him ….. As Jesus lives because of the Father (v. 57a), the believer lives and will live because of Jesus (v. 57b).” (Francis Moloney, op cit, 221-222.)
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them: This expression calls to mind the parable of the vine in John 15:1-17 where the Greek verb menō – “abide” – is used eleven times. It is one of John’s favourite themes.
In a letter to ‘A’ dated December 16, 1955, the American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor, wrote “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 defence 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.” (In Sally Fitzgerald, editor, The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, 125.)
Today’s Gospel – John 6:51-58 – presents us with some hard-hitting statements, beginning with the opening sentence: “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 final words: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. …. so whoever eats me will live because of me. ….. the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
There are at least three obvious interpretations here. The first – a jibe issued against the first Christians and occasionally raised even today – is that this is about cannibalism. The second is that it is merely symbolic language, that there is no real presence of the Risen Lord here. In two thousand years of Tradition, the Church has never held either of these interpretations to be true. The third interpretation affirms that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Like the great truth of the Incarnation itself, this is a matter of faith not rational proof.
Our belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is part of our belief that the Risen Lord is with us always: “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass not only in the person of his minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially in the Eucharistic species. By his power he is present in the sacraments so that when anybody baptizes, it is really Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church. Lastly, he is present when the Church prays and sings, for he has promised ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them’.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed.), #1088)