When John records the words of Jesus that “the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh,” he is giving us his account of the institution of the Eucharist, which is noticeably absent from its normal location at the Last Supper. John’s radical decision to move this account from the Last Supper (chapter thirteen) to chapter six can best be explained by his desire to provide no less than fifty verses of introduction to this central sacrament. In this introduction, he spells out in great detail the absolute necessity of faith for a fruitful reception of the Eucharist. And when John speaks of faith, he always means a personal decision to replicate in one’s own life the unselfishness of Jesus, which is also the primary meaning of the Eucharist.
John then goes beyond the other gospels in spelling out the amazing consequences of both receiving and living the Eucharist. For Jesus goes on to say, “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me”. This daring statement implies that the one who participates in the Eucharist will begin to share the very life of God–the life that courses between the Persons of the Trinity. Such a life laughs at death and makes our earthly life seem to be little more than sleepwalking.
The gospel of John was written some sixty years after the resurrection of Jesus and deals with problems that inevitably occur when a fresh, new religion begins to settle into a routine of doctrine and ritual. In this way, the fourth gospel anticipates the perennial problems of a sacramental religion like Catholicism. And, of course, at the very center of this religion is the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.
The problem is easily recognized. Jesus calls his followers to a radical conversion from the natural but disastrous tendency to be self-centered to a new kind of life where the concerns and needs of others become a major factor in all one’s decisions. Jesus himself modeled this ideal by giving his life for us. Small wonder then that the central sacrament of the Eucharist, representing his Body broken and his Blood poured out for others, should be the very heart and soul of Christian teaching and ritual.
Accordingly, the Christian church has surrounded this sacrament with elaborate ceremony and has made it the subject of fine art and music and poetry. The great danger is, of course, that we focus on these externals and fail to live the message of the Eucharist about behaving unselfishly. Unfortunately, it is quite possible to be very devout in one’s reverence for the Eucharist and still live in a way that is self-centered, thoughtless and hardhearted. Today’s splendid liturgy should not be allowed to obscure the real meaning of the Eucharist, which John sums up elsewhere with the words of Jesus, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (15:12).
Finally, the invitation of Jesus to share through the Eucharist in the very life of God is a wonderful challenge to enter into a mystical union with God that promises to drive all fear and anxiety out of our lives. It is infinitely consoling to realize that this is what God wishes for us and that only our cooperation is required. Unselfish love is difficult but the rewards are beyond imagining.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.