In the year of pandemic church closures, this feast has a sadness and irony, as we are unable to share the Eucharist. It is also a challenge. How many went to mass and communion more like a ‘routine’ or a ‘habit’ than an in-depth encounter with our Lord and Saviour? Some people have taken this as a time to reflect on what the Eucharist has meant in the past, and also how to find God’s presence in other ways. This enforced absence may have deepened appreciation for the mystery of Jesus coming to us in Bread and Wine as his Body and Blood. Now when we are looking forward to the return of masses and other assemblies, a time to reflect on what might we need or want to change in our lives, in our liturgy celebrations. Today’s readings on the history and background of the Eucharist may be one way to prepare for a restart.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16
The name of this book translates as ‘Second Law’ for it covers much of the same story as the book of Exodus, from the viewpoint of Moses looking back over the events and encouraging the Hebrews to continue faithfully in the worship of God and the following of the Law. It fits today for the reminder of ‘manna’ which was thought of as a form of ‘bread’. (For the story of manna, see Exodus chapter 6.) Here Moses moves beyond thinking of the provision of a miraculous food for the body to understanding that spiritual nourishment is even more important.
Psalm 147/148: 12-15, 19-20
Another ‘bread’ reminder – ‘the finest wheat’ – from the Old Testament for this song of praise today. We also see the comparison of food with God revealing his word or teaching, and both of these aspects are found in the Gospel of John.
1 Corinthians 1:16-17
This is from St Paul’s teaching on the Eucharist which in other parts of his chapter also links with Old Testament events. Here by his rhetorical question Paul stresses the sharing that is part of the Eucharist. Although eating the body and drinking the blood of God is a personal act for our individual spiritual nourishment, it is not meant to focus us only on ourselves. There are the others also receiving the Eucharist – those at the mass with us, and also all others taking the sacrament throughout the Church. We are all sharing in ‘one loaf and one cup’ –even though in our practice we may not see this literally, it is the underlying truth of Jesus’ gift. We are one body in Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), and the Eucharistic sharing in ‘one cup and one bread’ is another expression of the unity that should mark the Christian community.
The whole of Chapter 6 – a long one of over 70 verses – is devoted to Jesus’ teaching on ‘the ‘Bread of Life’. It is a complex in construction and ideas, and we are hearing only some verses near the end. Explanations of this chapter can take over 30 pages in commentaries, and a lifetime of reflection.
At the beginning, John describes the multiplication of bread in the wilderness, a miracle story told in all four gospels with some variation of details and emphasis. It is significant for John that it took place near the time of the Passover, which was the feast commemorated at the Last Supper. After the miracle, John says that the enthusiastic crowd was ready to take Jesus away ‘by force’ to make him a king. He slips away for, as he will say to Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. When he is next with a Jewish crowd back in Capernaum, he tells them they have been impressed by earthly, bodily food but now he challenges them to look for food that ‘leads to eternal life’. He then describes himself as ‘the bread that truly comes from heaven’ – in contrast to the earthly manna in the wilderness which had been called ‘bread from heaven’ for coming to rescue the tribes crossing the desert from starvation.
Our reading begins with the second development of Jesus’ speech, which now takes on a Eucharistic emphasis. Jesus asserts, with the double ‘Amen’ that marks his most solemn statements in John, that he is the true bread in a wholly different, sacramental way. He now adds ‘the blood’ so that we are hearing of the fullness of the Eucharist as both ‘real food and real drink’. The Greek word translated ‘real’ is related to truth, and corresponds to the deepest essence of being, often a level beyond merely human understanding. For Hebrews, the expression ‘flesh and blood’ is a description of the full human person and this underlines the presence of Jesus as total self-giving in the Eucharist.
John, unlike the other three evangelists, does not tell of the Eucharist given at the Last Supper – in its place, he describes Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples as an example of service to others that they are to follow (John 13:1-20). Yet this foot washing is a teaching about the Eucharist, for that gift of Jesus’ life is meant to give us the desire and the ability to serve all people.
In all of chapter 6, with its discussion of the reality of Jesus’ body and blood as our spiritual food, John fills out the Church’s understanding of the simple words of ‘take and eat/drink…’ we find in the other three gospels and also in 1 Corinthians 11:23f. It does not take away the aspects of ‘Mystery’ – something we cannot put in ordinary language. Instead, perhaps more than ‘understand’ we are called to respond. Our part is to ‘take and eat’ and welcome Jesus into our very being, as what gives us the life that lasts beyond death.