Over five consecutive Sundays in this Year “B”, we read the Sixth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel. The Chapter begins with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. The episode of the walking on the sea is omitted in our Sunday cycle, which then continues on with the great “Bread of Life” discourse. Today we hear the 3rd reading in this whole sequence: the central one.
There’s something entirely special about John Chapter 6, which is incidentally the longest in the whole Gospel. Somehow we find here the condensed heart of this Gospel – just as in the Holy Eucharist we find the heart of all the faith and life of the Church. We’ve read the Chapter so frequently – presumably many of us know it virtually be heart – yet it ever retains its capacity to touch us, to move us, and to astonish, perplex, even baffle us. The more we ponder it, and try to enter into it, the more we realise it speaks of mysteries that are beyond our full understanding. Not that its central message is at all in doubt. It’s about the offer of God’s life made to us through Jesus; and it’s about the Holy Eucharist through which that life is transmitted to us.
So we grapple with the text, aware that it operates always on several levels at once. Often it uses deliberately ambiguous language. It’s full of subtle allusion to other texts in this Gospel, and to the Old Testament, and to the whole Jewish tradition. As we read, and ponder, each time, we find ourselves being invited, challenged, drawn to deepen our understanding of Jesus: of who he is and what he gives us. Necessarily at the same time we find ourselves being invited also to deepen our attachment to him. And as we do that, so we come to appreciate ever more deeply what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to eat and drink at the Eucharistic table.
The movement of thought in this discourse follows the conventions of contemporary Rabbinical argument. That is, it progresses not in a straight line but in a spiral. An idea is proposed, then repeated in a slightly different form, with some advance or refinement of content. We find the same technique constantly at work in the poetry of the Psalms.
The context of the whole discourse is the miraculous feeding of the crowd on the Mountain, and the comparison between that and the gift of Manna at the Exodus. In last week’s passage we heard the Jews propose a text from the Torah for Jesus to comment on. The text is: He gave them Bread from heaven to eat (cf. Exodus 16:4,15. Ps 77/78:24).
The Manna – God’s gift – Bread from heaven: already for the Jews of New Testament times, the gift of manna at the Exodus was above all a sign. It was a sign of God’s active love for his people, without which they must necessarily die of hunger and thirst in the wilderness. Beyond that, it was a sign of his greater gift: his Word and his Wisdom; his self revelation and his covenant through the law of Moses. Now Jesus is claiming to be himself that gift, that saving food; that sign of love and of revelation; that Word and Wisdom of God. He is saying that ultimately what the manna signified was himself.
So we have the repeated and familiar “I am” sayings. They began in this Chapter with Jesus’ self identification to the disciples in the boat on the Lake. The Jerusalem Bible translates, legitimately if infelicitously: “It’s me”. But what he actually said was simply “I AM”, that is, the divine name.
In an atmosphere of harsh confrontation, the Jews, who here represent simply unbelief, reject Jesus’ claims. In today’s passage they begin by pointing to his origins, which they think they know. The scandal for them is his ordinariness. His father is Joseph. In the same way in the next Chapter (7:27,42) they will reject his claim to be the Son of David because they know he was not born in Bethlehem. St. John, savouring the delicious irony here, clearly assumes that his readers know the traditions about Jesus’ birth recorded in the other Gospels. But even more so, he assumes we have read his Prologue, where he set out Jesus’ origins in God before time began.
Who then is Jesus, and where does he come from? Seven times in this discourse he uses the phrase “come down from heaven”. Jesus is from heaven because he’s the divine and eternal Word of God made flesh. And the paradox of the Incarnation is that flesh, or what is precisely not spirit, becomes in him the vehicle for spiritual life and truth. We come to the divinity of Jesus through his humanity; to his majesty and glory through his self-abasement; to his life through his death.
The question posed by the Jews re-echoes in our own time, and in our own hearts. Is it true? Can we believe it? The reply of Jesus to that question is clear. He is God’s gift, and faith in him is God’s gift. What he says here comes as something of a surprise inversion of our normal perceptions. We are very used to thinking, rightly, that we can’t come to God the Father except through Jesus. But now we hear: we can’t come to faith in Jesus without being drawn to him by the Father.
How then will God draw us to Jesus? Entirely in line with the Rabbinic tradition, Jesus now cites a text from the Prophets: They will all be taught by God (cf. Isaiah 54:13; Jer 31:33-34). What will they be taught? Ultimately, that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son (cf. e.g. 1 Jn 4:14; 5:5,10,11). And we ask: are these the ravings of a deluded megalomaniac? No. Because Jesus is not seeking honours or power. He only wants us to accept the gift that is himself, his total self gift, sealed on the Cross and conveyed in the Holy Eucharist. And he wants us to accept it in order that we might have life in him.
Eating the bread of life then is a metaphor for having faith in Jesus. It’s the reversal of the curse of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden Tree and so incurred the punishment of death. Yet Jesus goes on in language that is the opposite of metaphor: language that insists precisely on the concrete – on flesh.
The Bread that I shall give, says Jesus, is my flesh, for the life of the world. These words are almost identical to the words the Priest pronounces over the bread at every Mass: this bread is my Body that will be given up for you.
Is Jesus here then speaking of the Eucharist? Yes of course: but not narrowly so. Or we could put it the other way around, and say that the Eucharist speaks about, contains, symbolises all that Jesus here says.
To participate in the Eucharist, then, is to come to Jesus, to believe in him, to be fed by him, to be led by him to the Father: to be given the fullness of eternal life in him.