Ps 34 R/. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Portion of ‘Christ on the Cross’, by Diego Velasquez, 1632.
We continue this Sunday with chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, the ‘Bread of Life Discourse’, and now this week we enter into the heart of Jesus’ explicit teaching on the Eucharist, the most important section of the whole chapter.
Since the crowds didn’t understand Him, Jesus now strengthens His language to clarify His meaning: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. […] and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (Jn 6:51).
Whereas before Jesus was using a spiritual language the crowds didn’t understand, He now switches to a more literal language so that they might understand. And we see that the crowds are beginning to do so: The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (Jn 6:52). They understand very well that Jesus is speaking of having them eat His flesh.
Here John uses irony again: though they understand His words plainly, the crowds, in fact, still don’t understand what He’s actually going to do. They now think He wants them to eat His living flesh, perhaps even at that moment. They hear Jesus’ words and immediately think of cannibalism, and this rightly confuses and even repulses them. They understand the what, but they don’t understand the how.
But notice Jesus’ careful choice of words: He didn’t say ‘the bread that I am giving is my flesh’, but rather, the bread that I will give … is my flesh (v. 51). The giving of His flesh for food is a future gift, not a present one. At the Last Supper, Jesus will change this to the present tense when He gives the Apostles His Flesh and Blood as bread and wine: ‘Take, eat; this is my body. […] ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood (Mt 26:26-28; cf. also Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:24).
You see, the Flesh and Blood that Jesus gives us to eat isn’t the flesh that was living at the time He spoke these words to the crowds, but His crucified, risen, and glorified Flesh. The gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus, while instituted at the Last Supper and given to us on the Cross, in a sense, only becomes the Eucharist after the Resurrection. Had He given us His flesh to eat before that, we could rightly ask with the crowds, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (Jn 6:52), for once having eaten Him, there would be nothing left: He would be consumed.
Rather, Jesus is pointing us precisely to the Cross and Resurrection. First, He’s pointing us to the Last Supper, where gives us the gift of His Flesh and Blood in word, and then literally gives us His Flesh and pours out His Blood on the Cross — (this is also where the Sacraments of Marriage and the Priesthood intersect with the Eucharist, but that’s for another time). It’s in this moment that He gives His Body and Blood for the life of the world — that is, in atonement for our sins, for our redemption and salvation; that we might once again have access to eternal life in God’s presence.
Second, it points us to the Resurrection, where His Body now has eternal life; death has no more power over the Body of Jesus. And, as we see for the Resurrection accounts, neither do the laws of physics: Jesus appears and disappears, and He even ascends into Heaven with His Body (cf. Mk 16:19; Lk 24:13-31, 50-53; Jn 20:19-29; Acts 1:9). Not being bound by death, space, and time, after the Resurrection Jesus is able to give us His Flesh and Blood without being Himself destroyed — this is part of the meaning of the miracles of multiplication. Since He’s conquered sin and death with His Body, He’s able to give us His eternal and divine Body and Life so that sin and death will be destroyed in us. This is also contained in the phrase for the life of the world (Jn 6:51): in the Eucharist, Jesus gives us life, His life.
We can understand this now because we’re looking back with the lens of the Resurrection and the centuries of meditation on this text, but in that moment in the synagogue at Capernaum, as we’ll see more clearly next week, neither the crowds nor the Apostles understood this. (It’s interesting, though, that no one seems to have thought of asking Jesus what exactly He meant and how He was going to do it. John only shows us that the crowds continued in their stubbornness and lack of faith.)
But going back to our Gospel text: instead of correcting their mistaken understanding, Jesus actually intensifies His language, repeating the same phrase five more times in our Gospel passage (Jn 6:53-58)! And not only this, but Jesus now changes the word He used for ‘eat’ from the usual term for eating to the more graphic term, ‘chew’, usually only used for animals. (Here we have a beautiful link to the Nativity: He who was to become our Food already pointed to this as a newborn by lying in a manger, an animal trough!) There is no room here for symbolism or metaphor! Jesus is very clear that He is being literal in His words: we must indeed eat His flesh and drink His blood!
And in this repetition, Jesus also mentions that those who eat and drink His Flesh and Blood will share in His life: [as] I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me (Jn 6:57). To receive the Eucharist is to participate in the very life of Jesus. That’s why we call it communion (union with), because in receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus, it’s He who lives in us, and us who live in Him. Again, since it’s His glorified Body we receive, it isn’t He who’s consumed in us, but rather we who are consumed in Him, to be increasingly re-created in His image and likeness. This is the true ‘personal relationship’ to which Jesus invites us!
And to tie this in with what He said earlier, Jesus speaks again of the manna (v. 58). The Eucharist, like the manna, is a free gift from God to sustain us on our journey to the Promised Land. It’s physical food for our bodies and spiritual food for our souls, to strengthen us in faith and keep us faithful to the God who loves us and calls us to be His people. The Eucharist is our true daily bread from Heaven. (This is also a reference to the Our Father.)
That’s why we speak of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Church: it’s in the Eucharist that we’re united to Jesus and to each other, thereby being made Church; and it’s in the Eucharist that we express most profoundly the mystery of being God’s People, by being joined to Jesus in His offering of love to the Father. As Christians, we’re made by the Eucharist, and made for the Eucharist!
I invite you now to kneel.
[Kneeling toward the Tabernacle:]
Lord Jesus Christ, we firmly believe that you are truly and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. Humbly kneeling before you, in union with all the faithful on earth, we adore you and worship you with all our heart. Grant, O Lord, that we, who declare our faith in this fountain of your love and mercy, may drink from it the water of everlasting life. Amen.