In Christ, we have his Word and flesh in the liturgy and Eucharist
August is a straight-forward month. Its four Sundays take the Gospel from the sixth chapter of the Gospel According to John and the New Testament reading from the fourth and fifth chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. In a way, Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians serve as the setting into which the priceless gem of Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse can fit and bring out further meaning.
The “Bread of Life” passage can be easily divided into four parts, one each for the four Sundays. The first part is an introduction in the form of a dialogue. The two middle parts make up the substance of the discourse. Finally, John presents the public reaction to Jesus’ words.
Before we start discussing the 18th Sunday, we need to go back to the previous Sunday’s Gospel, which actually was the beginning of John’s sixth chapter. There we read about the multiplication of loaves and fish. Thus begins this extraordinary section of Scripture. The preceding day Jesus had left the 5,000 men knowing they were about to try to make him king. So, we proceed to the first segment of Jesus speaking about his being the bread of life.
It begins with a dialogue reminiscent of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. Here, the crowd, which had fed on the miraculous bread, catches up with Jesus and asks him, “When did you get here?” Jesus advised them not to look for the perishable bread they really craved. The bread he can give fills your body and your soul, too. This bread provides you with eternal life. The people took the bait and asked what they needed to do to accomplish the works of God. Jesus answered all they needed to do was believe. That is to say their duty is to be on the receiving end and submit to God’s work, which will become clear in Jesus’ words and life. Hearing that, the crowd became unfriendly. They thought salvation is something you earn. Jesus revealed that we need to trust God. We must allow Jesus, the real bread, into our lives.
Now, the crowd was wary. Trusting wasn’t easy or satisfying. So, they asked for a sign, like the manna Moses gave the people. Jesus corrected them on two counts. First, Moses did not give bread from heaven; God did. Second, it is not a past event. God is still giving you the real bread that gives life to the world. The crowd reacts with the request, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus concluded the interview saying, “I am the Bread of Life.”
That leads us directly to the discourse itself. On the 19th Sunday the Liturgy presents the first part and the 20th Sunday has the second half. The sermon starts with Jesus introducing himself to those who didn’t truly know him. The crowd only saw his human persona. He was the son of Joseph. Jesus revealed to them that those who come to him are drawn by the Father. We are beginning to learn about the nature of God. If we have faith in Jesus we also are in the mystery of a Triune God and enter eternal life. Jesus continues, “I am the bread that came down from Heaven…and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the light of the world.”
In effect, Jesus is the bread of life because he feeds us. What he feeds us is divine wisdom and himself. So, in Christ we have both his word and his flesh. We have the Liturgy of the Word and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He is the Mass.
That concept comes more clearly to the fore in the second half of the discourse. Salvation comes not just from believing in Jesus but from feeding on his flesh. John, at this time, used an alternative Greek word to describe “eating” the Body of Christ. He substituted a word meaning “devour” or “chewing hard” instead of the more polite “eat.” He wanted to depict an aggressive action, perhaps the eating of a person who was terribly hungry. As for drinking his blood, that already was repulsive for Jews. For them, no humans should drink blood. John seems to be trying to temper our tendency to over-spiritualize our receiving the Eucharist. Christ is truly entering our life, body and soul. It is a sacrament and, therefore, a sensual experience leading us to a deeper spiritual awareness of God’s presence within us.
Notice, as well, two statements of Jesus recorded in the Gospel on the 20th Sunday that reflect different answers to the perennial Christian question about when salvation comes. Is Christ’s coming an event that has happened, or will happen at the end of time, or some time in between? Jesus gives one answer, “Whoever eats my flesh…remains in me and I in him,” that seems to say salvation has been accomplished and we abide with God here and now in the Eucharist. But then a verse later, Jesus is quoted as saying, “The one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” That seems to indicate we have to wait for the last day to enjoy true union with God. John, I think, is using one of the best teaching methods in the Scriptures. He presents us with an apparent contradiction and leaves it to us to reconcile it. In this case, one can make the case for “anticipated eschatology.” That is, eternal salvation is attained in heaven; but we can anticipate its joy here on earth as we experience, in the Eucharist, a real relationship with the Lord in the unity of the Blessed Trinity.
On the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time we close out the “Bread of Life” discourse with the reaction of the listeners. They appear to be similar to the people of Israel in the desert after the Passover. They murmured. Jesus told them there are some who do not believe. And many of his disciples left him returning to their old lifestyle. That’s when Peter comes to the rescue and makes his profession of Faith in Jesus as the “Holy One of God.”
The discourse is, indeed, a pearl of great price. Now, at the end, let’s look very briefly at the New Testament readings for the month and mention what facet of the Gospels each brings out. Remember, all of these readings come from the fourth and fifth chapters of Ephesians. On the first Sunday of August, Paul reminds us that we have chosen a new way of life and we should not return to our old ways as many of the disciples did after Jesus’ discourse. On the following two Sundays, Paul brings out the relationship we have when we share in the Body of Christ. We are in a relationship of love with everyone. So, we must live deeply our new life in joy and thanksgiving. Anything less is to “grieve the Spirit.”
Finally, Paul presents the greatest example of living the Eucharistic lifestyle: couples living the life of matrimony. Marriage, for Christians, is a happy mystery referring to Christ and the Church. May all married couples remain in love and continue to model what it means to live in the life of God.