We continue with the Bread of Life discourse from John 6.
In the first reading, Elijah is out of strength. But the Lord gives him bread from heaven, and then he can walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God. “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”
But the New Testament always transforms the bodily things of the Old Testament into spiritual, or rather, moral things. Our reading from Ephesians tells us we have been sealed with “the Holy Spirit of God” “for the day of redemption,” and therefore should put away “all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting,” etc., and “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving . . . as God has forgiven you in Christ.”
We always say the journey is too long for us, we don’t have the strength to be like Christ. And that’s true! But he gives himself to us—“handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God”—so that, by receiving him as our bread, we can take on his way of life. Only because we are fed with the bread of heaven.
John’s Gospel rearranges things to give us deeper theological perspective. For example, in a couple weeks we will read his version of Peter’s proclamation; in the other Gospels, Peter just proclaims him Lord, but John puts it in the context of the Eucharist.
So too this week we read how John incorporates the line, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” He puts that into the context of the Eucharist, too. “The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven,’ and they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother?’”
John is attentive, first, to the Incarnation. His Gospel begins, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” So too here, first, he brings us to the clash of how he can be “son of Joseph,” member of their community, and also say, “I have come down from heaven.” In fact, he pauses for much of our reading today, steps away from the Bread, and just talks about the Incarnation.
Jesus says a funny thing, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” You’d expect it to be the other way around: “everyone who listens to me comes to my Father.” But John picks which of Jesus’s words to use to emphasize his divinity. No one comes to the Father except through him—and so the Father always draws us through Jesus.
This is the way of the Incarnation. Our first two readings help us understand. On the one hand, we need to love God with a strength beyond our own, to reach to him with the Spirit of God. Because of sin, I don’t love God all that much. Even without sin, I could never know him the way he wants me to know him. He wants to give us way more than our human nature can reach. That is the work of God.
But he always gives it to us—in our way, according to our nature: that is the work of man, of Jesus Incarnate. That’s why I corrected myself above: I call this web site “The Catholic Spiritual Life,” but a great Thomistic author says, we don’t have a spiritual life, we have a Christian life. We can’t love God in some disembodied way, as if we were pure spirits. That wouldn’t be us loving God, and thus it wouldn’t be true love. So our reading from Ephesians talks about all those very practical things: not grumbling, being compassionate, etc. There is no other way to love God.
Ephesians talks too about Jesus becoming “a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” On the one hand, Jesus teaches us—and enables us—to love God in a human way. His sacrifice is not in the Temple but on the Cross. It is the sacrifice of pure human love—or rather, of God loving through human flesh. Paul stretches the language of “sacrifice” by taking that Temple language and applying it to ordinary life.
But on the other hand, Jesus also gives us a Temple activity. He becomes bread so that we can offer him, his flesh, on the altar. We eat that flesh, we become that flesh, we take it into our flesh and make it flesh in our ordinary lives—but we also offer that flesh on the altar as our sacrifice. Jesus unites communion and sacrifice, God and man, worship and ordinary life, love of God and love of neighbor, bread and flesh and God.
And so he becomes “the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. . . . And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
How could your life be more Eucharistic?