Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Jesus, Bread of Life
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
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.
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
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
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...!"
Next: The Other Apostles (by Barbara Reid, O.P.)