The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (In John’s gospel, “Jews” is often a technical term meaning the religious authorities who are hostile to Jesus. Thus, for example, Jesus and his disciples, all Jews, would not be “Jews” in this restricted sense.) Those who were hostile to Jesus argued that he was from earth, not from heaven. Wasn’t he the son of Joseph? Jesus then proclaims that he is from heaven and that God is his Father. Further, he says that anyone who is taught by his Father and drawn to his Son will believe and have eternal life. Jesus then begins his discourse on the Eucharist: “I am the bread of life…whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Hunger for life is at the heart of this passage from the bread-of-life chapter of John’s gospel. The experience of hunger provides a revelation of the most fundamental truth of human existence. We are incomplete, totally dependent on things and others outside of ourselves. From the moment of receiving life at conception, we are hungry. If our need is not satisfied even for a short time, we die. As we grow to adulthood our hunger for more life seems to be without limit. We desire good food and drink, shelter, wealth, knowledge, health, medical care, a healthful environment, social status, loving companions. At times we may even eat from the tree of forbidden fruit in the illusory desire for a human life without limits.
Jesus responded to the hunger of people for life — he cured the sick, and he fed a huge multitude. The people responded by coming to take him away and make him king. Whereupon, Jesus fled to be alone (Jn 6:1-15). He was well aware of our need for the necessities of life; however, he recognized a deeper hunger that could not be satisfied by bread alone. This gospel testifies that Jesus revealed himself as the bread from heaven that will satisfy the deepest human hunger for life. The number of people who saw and heard Jesus in the flesh was quite small. John addresses his gospel to his own community and to us who have not seen and heard Jesus, yet have the same deep hunger for life as those who did. We, like John’s community, hear the good news from the Risen Lord sacramentally at a Eucharistic meal in which he gives himself to us as the bread of life.
When Jesus revealed himself as the bread from heaven, many did not believe him. It was plain to see that he was from earth: “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” Because many refused to believe that Jesus himself was the living bread come down from heaven,
they refused to believe that Jesus could give himself as the bread of the Eucharist for the life of the world. When we hear the revelation of Jesus in the gospel, we too might be tempted to refuse belief, saying something like the following: Were not these words written by a human being like us? Is this not ordinary bread, made from wheat like any other bread?
We, like the people who heard Jesus speak, cannot with our reason alone recognize him as the bread from heaven. The good news of the gospel is that the Father gives us this bread draws us and teaches us. This is the gift of faith that enables us to see that it is Jesus, given by the Father, who will satisfy our deepest hunger for eternal life. Because the gospel is proclaimed to all, we believe God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that the hunger of every human being may be satisfied.
What does it mean to say that one who believes has eternal life? The Father reveals the meaning of eternal life as drawing us out of love to Jesus, his gift of bread to us for our life (read Hosea 11:4). Jesus reveals the meaning of eternal life by defining himself as bread given for the life of others. To have eternal life means to share in the self-giving love of the Father and Jesus. “God is love…we love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:16-19). Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who was executed after volunteering to be taken to a concentration camp in place of others, also captured the meaning of life as giving herself as bread for others. Shortly before her death in Auschwitz in 1943, she wrote: “I have my body like bread and shared it…and why not; they were hungry, and had gone without for so long” (An Interrupted Life).
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.