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Jesus, Bread of Life

by Virginia Smith

The Easter Triduum, the most solemn three days in Christianity's liturgical year, opens on Thursday evening of Holy Week with the Mass of the Last Supper. Our attention is drawn not only to the historical meal which set the stage for the momentous events to follow, but to the institution of what would become the foundation of Catholic practice, the Eucharist.

Asked to corroborate belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, most Catholics would unhesitatingly point to the words of Jesus at the Last Supper as recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:14-20). None of these, however, is read on Holy Thursday evening. Instead, the lectionary selection for the second reading in all three years of the cycle is from Paul, whose account predates them all. Writing his First Letter to the Corinthians, c. 56 C.E., Paul briefly sets down the essentials of Christian belief in the Eucharist little more than two decades after Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Cor 11:23-26).

So where is the Gospel of John in all this? Oh, he's represented on Holy Thursday all right. The evening's Gospel is taken from his pages (Jn 13:1-15), but that passage has nothing whatever to do with the establishment of the eucharistic tradition, but rather tells the touching story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet (the only Gospel to relate this episode, by the way). But don't count John out. He has more to say about the Last Supper than any other evangelist...far more...five chapters worth, comprising nearly one-fourth of his book. In the course of that lengthy chronicle, he must devote a substantial number of words to the institution of the Eucharist, right? No, not one! It's never mentioned. What? John has nothing to say about something as critical as the Eucharist? Now, I didn't say that. He has, in fact, a lot to say. He simply doesn't say it in the context of the Last Supper. As might be expected, John comes at the issue from a completely different direction than his Synoptic brethren. Open your Bible to John's Gospel, Chapter 6, and keep it at your elbow for easy reference, for many of John's familiar literary ploys will come into play here.

Last Supper vs. First Picnic

The chapter begins by recounting the multiplication of loaves, so familiar a story that it elicits no particular surprise until it dawns on the reader that:

(1) John almost never tells the same miracle (or sign) stories as the Synoptics; truth to tell, this is the one and only time he does, and (2) the story in John is not situated the way it is in the Synoptics.

Is something afoot here? Well, this is the multilayered writing of John, so almost certainly, yes. In Mt 14:13-21, Mk 6:32-44 and Lk 9:10-17 the feeding of the 5,000 takes place about midway into Jesus' public life. For Matthew and Mark, it's shortly after the death of John the Baptist and right before Jesus' walk on water. John uses the feeding of the multitude and Jesus' stroll on the lake to set up an entirely original scenario, one whose eucharistic dimension expands and deepens as the story unfolds.

Both John and his Synoptic counterparts develop their eucharistic theology within the context of a meal whether it be the formally ritualistic Jewish Seder or an informal, sprawl-on-the-grass picnic atmosphere. In all probability, John chose to open in this manner because of the overtones of Exodus. The wondrous feeding of so many with so little echoes the manna in the Sinai desert, a theme which John will develop. As the waters under his feet obey him, so the waters of the Reed Sea obeyed Moses, allowing the Israelites to walk, if not on them, at least through them. Now John, the great dramatist, has set the stage for the main act. Let the play begin.

Define Bread

Since this will be primarily a dialogue between Jesus and the people who have followed him to the other side of the lake, John first gets everybody in place (6:22-25). Jesus has no illusions about their motives. Having enjoyed yesterday's free lunch, they've followed the figurative trail of bread crumbs (6:26). Jesus suggests a nobler incentive, "Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you..." (6:27a). Eternal life is a major theme in John. Here he connects it to bread, suggesting that just as the kind of bread they ate on the hillside the day before nourished their bodies in this temporal life, so the kind of bread he will provide will nourish their souls for eternal life. This type of progression is typical of John, and we'll see more of it.

What kind of bread was it they ate on that hillside? Probably plain old barley bread, the sort found on the humblest table every day. This was the "staff of life" eaten morning and evening, taken into the fields for sustenance, baked in community ovens daily across the area. What it lacked in elegance, it made up for in nutrition. Unlike some of its delicate modern counterparts, it stuck to the ribs. If you're having trouble equating that to the ethereal Communion hosts long favored by Catholicism, that's understandable. It also helps explain why a number of parishes have recently opted for a product more nearly resembling real table bread.

Next, Jesus is challenged to do something extraordinary to merit the confidence of the crowd. Yes, there was the feeding of the multitude and the walking on water, but that was yesterday. "What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert..." (6:30b-31a). In John, Jesus' amazing deeds are never termed miracles but signs, and signs always point to something beyond themselves.

The mention of manna ratchets up the stakes another notch, leaving everyday table bread behind and moving to the original God-given bread, manna, sometimes called bread from heaven. In reading Jesus' reply, take note of the grammar. What may at first seem a linguistic blunder proves surprisingly significant, "...it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven" (6:32b). Catch the switch from past to present in the verb tenses? The progression continues, and it involves not only forms of bread but also periods of time.

Much like the Samaritan woman who thought Jesus' offer of living water which would slake her thirst permanently might mean indoor plumbing, Jesus' listeners on this occasion seem to see never-ending free lunches in the offing (6:34). They're more than willing to stick with that which they already know...maybe a new version of the familiar, but the familiar nonetheless. And there's been a sea change in human nature since then? Evidence would indicate otherwise and, loath as I am to admit it, I've no doubt contributed to that evidence.

Jesus refuses to settle for that and prods his audience (and, by extension, ourselves) to move out of that comfortable mindset and be receptive to a new idea. And what an idea! "I am the bread of life..." (6:35a). John's Gospel contains a number of "I am" statements. These are seen by many as divinity statements on Jesus' part, harkening back to Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3). When Moses ventures that pharaoh will surely question at whose command Moses demands the release of the Israelites and the Israelites themselves will require some documentation of his authority, he is told, "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you" (Ex 3:14b).

Did Jesus Really Mean What He Said?

At this, John maintains, "the Jews murmured about him" (6:41a). John's gospel has come under fire more than once for its disparaging comments about "the Jews." It is important to remember that, written late in the first century C.E., the Fourth Gospel reflects the conflicts which had already arisen between the Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah and those who accepted him. It is not meant as a denunciation of all Jews always and everywhere for John himself was a Jew as, of course, was Jesus.

Jesus reiterates, "I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world" (6:48-51). Bread, the most common foodstuff throughout the world, has now been elevated to an unimaginable stature. Jesus, who has just emphasized his divinity, offers to share himself personally with human beings. Is he serious? Or should his statement be taken figuratively?

He Can't Be Serious!

John next employs one of his favorite literary devices, misunderstanding. By setting up misconceptions and showing his listeners as confused, John provides a forum for further explanation by Jesus. His listeners understandably equate the giving of Jesus' flesh with cannibalism and are appalled, possibly revolted. Jesus plows doggedly on, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (6:54-56).

Even those who were trying hard to understand and believe were having a tough time. "Then many of his disciples who were listening said, 'This saying is hard; who can accept it?" (6:60). Before shaking our heads sorrowfully at such lack of faith, we might try hearing these words for the first time ourselves. How outlandish they sound when not cushioned by centuries of explanatory eucharistic theology. Even today, some Catholics find it impossible to take Jesus' words at face value. "As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him" (6:66).

If I may be allowed a personal note, the most convincing argument favoring the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist lies right here, not in what the biblical text says, but in what it does not. Nowhere in the closing verses of this chapter is there any allusion or even suggestion that Jesus did not mean exactly what he said. There seems to be an almost wistful quality to his question to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" (6:67b) But never does he call to those whose backs he sees disappearing down the road, "Wait! You misunderstood." He stands by his extremely explicit statements, the most clear-cut eucharistic teaching in any Gospel.

Peter doubtless is just as perplexed as everyone else. When Jesus asks if he and the other members of the inner circle will also pack up and go, Peter's reply is hesitant, almost as if he's casting about for options. "Master, to whom shall we go?" Then, his decision made, he comes down firmly, "You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God" (6:68b-69). In the final analysis, that's what it comes down to for each member of a faith tradition so centered on the Eucharist. As we come together to reaffirm our belief in the real presence in the opening rite of the solemn Easter Triduum, we couldn't improve on Peter's brave, if baffled, declaration, "We have come to believe and are convinced...!"

Virginia Smith, one of the general editors of this publication and a frequent contributor, has a B.A. from the University of Montana and an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University.

Next: The Other Apostles (by Barbara Reid, O.P.)


Praying With Scripture 

Strange as it seems, the beliefs and practices most deeply ingrained in us often go unexamined. When is the last time you really explored your attitude toward the Eucharist? Have you ever seriously probed your relationship with Jesus as he manifests himself in the Eucharist? The Bread of Life Discourse can provide ample material for this type of meditation.



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