In the reflection on the eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time we saw that while the “bread of life” is found above all in the Eucharist, our hunger for the Lord can and should be satisfied in other ways as well, chief among them the study of the word of God as recorded in the Bible. Today Jesus’ teaching turns vividly to the Eucharistic imagery of his flesh and blood, expressed in very strong terms in response to the doubts of his listeners.
Before reading the gospel, however, we note that, as on each of the five Sundays when John 6 is read at mass, the accompanying readings and the Psalm today revolve around images of food, drink, and nourishment. First comes the Book of Proverbs, where God’s wisdom is personified as a feminine figure, and we read: “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns; she has dressed her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table” (Prov 9:1-2). Next the Psalmist invites us to “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps 34:9). Finally, before the gospel we hear from the Letter to the Ephesians the following admonition: “Do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18).
Homilists rarely note that readings from Ephesians focusing on Christian conduct within the family and the larger Church precede each of the five “bread of life” readings from John’s gospel. Nonetheless, their effect of encouraging Christians to make manifest in their behavior and disposition the spiritual nourishment Christ brings them is important in understanding the upshot of the “bread of life” discourse.
Finally we come to the sixth chapter of John’s gospel and encounter a passage in which Jesus speaks in remarkably strong language about the reality and the sacramentality of his flesh which he will give to his followers to sustain them. The sacrament of the Eucharist makes present the reality of the risen and glorified Christ—his risen and glorified Body and Blood, together with his soul and divinity—in a sacramental manner; that is, in a non-literal manner. We are consuming not physical flesh and blood but the risen, glorified Body and Blood of Christ, made present under the signs of bread and wine by the power of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the priest.
That Jesus wanted his disciples to understand how central the Eucharist would be to their fellowship after his death is made clear by his choice of words in this part of the “bread of life” discourse. He is facing open hostility from some of his hearers since they mistake his sacramental language for literal language, missing the entire point about partaking not of the flesh and blood of his physical body but rather of his risen and glorified body.
To make clear that the Eucharist is an essential part of the life of every Christian he says: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:53-54). In the first sentence of this quote Jesus uses the normal Greek word to describe polite human eating; in the second sentence of the quoted text he purposefully changes his language and uses the Greek term used to describe wild animals and livestock “munching” on their food.
Both in hearing and keeping the word of the scriptures and in sharing in the glorified Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist let us all resolve to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” and thus to be numbered among his faithful ones who are nourished by Christ in many ways and who make him present in many ways in the midst of our modern world.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.