The restrictions imposed because of the COVID pandemic have prevented many Christians from regular participation in the eucharist, to their sorrow and increasingly their protests. Perhaps the emergency has reminded us how easy it is to let familiarity lead us to take the very heart of our faith in Jesus for granted. Not that it was always easy to grasp the full significance of the eucharistic bread because we have also become so familiar with bread that we take it for granted… until the shelves go bare.
Connections are easily lost, even the best of times. Some years ago, when I was teaching a course on sacramental theology, one of my students remarked “It takes more faith to believe that the hosts are real bread than that they are the body of Christ.” He had a point. Over time, the shape, feel, and taste of bread were lost from the sacramental meal. Perhaps the longing so many Christians are experiencing for the eucharist today will lead us to recover the authenticity and therefore the significance of the elements we consecrate. We have something to learn in that regard from today’s gospel.
The reading from John continues the chapter from last Sunday that can be called his eucharistic discourse. This is obscured a bit by the
English translation that reads “where they (the thousands of people) had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks” [John 6:23], the Greek has, simply, eucharistesantos tou kuriou, the ordinary enough expression for giving thanks but here laden with far deeper meaning. The exchange with those who were now pursuing Jesus because of the miracle of the loaves and fishes leads to what was a startling claim which after nearly two thousand years does not strike our ears with the same force it would have had then: “I am the bread of life.” Because the dialogue had turned on the question of the manna in the wilderness, Jesus adds “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” [6:35].
Jesus goes on to say, scandalously to many in the crowd, “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” [6:51]. More than Jesus’ claim to be the true manna sent by God for the salvation of the world, this assertion will provoke, as we shall hear over the next three weeks, anger and protests from many in the crowd, who eventually reject Jesus entirely, leaving Peter to speak for the remnant, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” [6:68].
The sixth chapter of John is the longest in his gospel, more than twice as long as many of the others. It is the capstone of his teaching about Jesus and his presence among us now as it was then. It is all the more significant because John omits the eucharistic passage from his account of the Last Supper. It’s all here.
We may miss much of the impact of this entire section of the gospel because we are so familiar with bread today, or what passes for bread on endless shelves in vast supermarkets. Bread was much harder to come by at the time of Jesus, because it was hand-made, usually at home. Without it, the poor especially would simply starve. The sixth chapter of John begins with real hunger and ends with faith in the eucharistic presence of Jesus’ body and blood. It reminds us that we should not forget that in many parts of the world today, life-giving bread is also desperately needed because of drought, poverty, and famine. When we celebrate our eucharist, we are pledging ourselves to feed the world with actual bread if we are true followers of Jesus, who took pity on the crowd, hungry and without money to buy bread, and not only gave them bread but made himself bread for the life of the world.