“I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” John 6, 51-58
I find today’s gospel reading difficult because my early religious education led me to a literal understanding of Jesus’ words: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.” To take those words literally places me squarely in the same camp as the Jews, who could not comprehend the meaning behind them. One of the principal differences between John’s Gospel and those attributed to Mark, Matthew and Luke is that John’s Gospel works through poetry, symbol and metaphor, while the other three Gospels are substantially a collection of stories.
A further difficulty about matching today’s reading from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel with the institution of the Eucharist is that John’s account of the Last Supper ignores completely any reference to bread and wine. Eucharist is all about building community, and John’s point is that the cement of community is hospitality, symbolized by the welcome that is extended to a guest through the washing of his/her feet. For the other three evangelists, close, welcoming community is nourished through the sharing of a meal. For John, genuine community is built and nourished through the ritual of gracious foot-washing. He makes it clear that the way we are in communion with one another, the way we treat one another with welcome, dignity and respect reflects the way we are in communion with God. The challenge for all of us is to match the beliefs and values we say we hold dear with the way in which we actually live. The greater the congruence or harmony between our rhetoric and our behaviour, the more authentic will be our humanity. And our model for that is Jesus himself. There was no credibility gap between what he said and what he did. Jesus engaged with the messy reality of life with integrity and credibility. The challenge for all of us is to do likewise.
In turning our attention to Eucharist, we have to keep in mind that, for Jewish people, sharing in a meal (breaking bread and drinking wine) was a demonstration of intimate relationship with one another and, consequently, a symbol of our communion with God. True hospitality to others reflects our relationship to God. In other words, if what we celebrate when we gather in our parishes for Eucharist on Saturday evening or Sunday does not lead us to treat one another with respect and dignity, does not bring us closer together as a community or parish, then we have little in common with the Jesus we claim to follow.
In today’s gospel reading, John ascribes to Jesus the words: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven” (John 6, 51). A few verses earlier, John has Jesus say to the Jews who had gathered: “I am the bread of life” (John 6, 48). Very clearly this is poetic language, metaphors used by John to say that Jesus is the way to God. Fully immersed in our humanity through the flesh and blood realities of life, Jesus is pointing out that the way to God is to be found in engaging with and processing the earthy events of our lives. God is to be encountered in the ordinary stuff of life.
One of the real difficulties with understanding and fully participating in Eucharist is that most of us have to move into the uncomfortable territory of letting go of what we learned all those years ago when, as children, we were preparing for our First Holy Communion. If it has to be unlearned, it was poor teaching in the first place. My memory is of being told that the high point of Mass was to receive Jesus, “body and blood, soul and divinity”, into my heart and that this was a private moment between Jesus and me.
Jesus is, indeed, really present in the Eucharist, but it is not in the form of physical flesh and blood. We do not receive the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, or the Jesus who chased the money-lenders out of the temple. Rather, it is the risen Jesus, sacramentally and spiritually present. Even Thomas Aquinas explained that the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not a physical one, but a spiritual one. But that does not mean that his presence is less real. Somehow, we have been brainwashed into believing that the only true reality is material or physical. In the Eucharist we encounter the person of Jesus and all he stood for and proclaimed. Surely that is enough to change our lives. That encounter is a sacramental one, but still real.
When we hear the word of God proclaimed and respond with “Thanks be to God” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”, we are committing ourselves to live what we have heard. What’s more, in our western world, we have lost the true meaning of the offertory. Celebration of the Eucharist in every African country involves the whole community. Everyone walks or dances to the front of the church to make his/her monetary gift, and those selected for the offertory procession itself come bearing everything from fruit to canned goods and toilet tissue. These are gifts for the support of the priest and needy people in the area. But the gifts represent the life of the community and the people who make up the community. And when those gifts, represented by the staples of bread and wine, are consecrated and made holy, it is the community that is made holy, and immersed in the life of Jesus. That is why Augustine can suggest that the priest distributing communion might well say to everyone approaching the altar: “Behold who you are, become what you receive” – See, you are the body of Christ, the way to God for others, become the body of Christ and be for others the way to God.
There is ever so much more that can be said about Eucharist. However, let’s not forget that each Sunday we gather as community to encounter the Word of God, Jesus. Jesus Christ is, for us, the way to God. By welcoming Jesus into our lives when the Word is proclaimed and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ sacramentally at communion, we in our turn become what we receive, namely, the way to God for others.
(For many of these thoughts I am indebted to Frank Andersen, MSC whose book Eucharist: Participating in the mystery, John Garratt Publishing, 1998, transformed my understanding of Eucharist when I read it nearly 20 years ago. I hope I have not done Frank a disservice.)