by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus said to the crowd: “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
Food can be looked at in many different ways. There are some of us who are very particular about the ingredients of the food we buy in supermarkets. We can go along the rows of shelves and freezers reading the list of contents on the packets, making sure to buy products that are low in fat, sugar and substances like monosodium glutamate. Others of us are concerned only about taste, preferring things like hamburgers, deep fried potato chips and ice-cream. There are others of us who opt for tried and true comfort food such as roast chicken, beef steak, baked potatoes and green vegetables. For some, food is an enemy, especially when it expands our waistlines, preventing us from easily fitting into our favourite clothes. There are some among us who regard preparing a meal or baking biscuits as expressions of love.
Professional chefs see food presentation as an art form, while there are some anxious people who prefer to waste away to skin and bone, even putting their lives at risk. Despite all those different views about food and the ways we respond to it, most of us appreciate that good food sustains and nourishes us. We accept it as an expression of genuine love when it is prepared by those who care for us. We appreciate it as a gift from God.
The readings of the last three Sundays have included many references to food. We have heard how Jesus called himself “the Bread of life” and how he shocked those who gathered to listen to him by inviting them to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To better understand what he was saying, we have to explore the Jewish understanding of the animal sacrifice that was practiced in the Temple in Jerusalem. When worshippers brought an animal for sacrifice on the temple altar, some of the meat was returned to them to be shared among family members at a ritual meal. Because the meat came from a temple offering, it was understood that God was somehow a participant in the meal as a silent, unseen guest. People believed that God was present in the meat of the sacrificed animal and that they went away from the ritual meal carrying God within them. Similarly, the belief held by devout Jews was that an animal’s or person’s blood carried the life of that person or animal. Blood was therefore considered to be sacred, belonging only to God. When the blood of a sacrificed animal was sprinkled on the people, it was taken as a sign of their being touched directly by God and filled with the life of God.
For John, then, it was a logical extension to consider the Eucharistic meal as feasting on Jesus, “the Bread of life”; as participating in the very life of God. Eating the Eucharist is being consumed by the Jesus we receive, being nourished and sustained by his compassion and love, by the love, mercy and kindness of God which he proclaimed and practiced in his life. The love of God, alive in Jesus, the Bread of life, is the life and love of God flowing through us to a world in need.
The ancient Greeks and Romans subscribed to the view that “Repetition is the mother of learning” (Latin: Repetitio mater studiorum est). Clearly, John’s belief in that approach to learning is demonstrated in his teaching on Eucharist. Those who put the Sunday readings together seem to have the same view. The final sentence of last Sunday’s gospel reading is the opening sentence of today’s: “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). Variations of this are repeated throughout the latter part of this chapter. John is surely trying to stress that Jesus wanted to leave no doubt in what he was saying.
The Greek word that John attributes to Jesus for eating is the equivalent of “feeding on, munching, crunching or gnawing on”. Little wonder, then, that the people listening to Jesus were puzzled and even angered at what they heard. John’s point is that Jesus’ teaching here can only be embraced by people who have faith in him. Next week we will hear that many who had followed him closely were to walk away from him in confusion and puzzlement. Their response nudges us to ask ourselves what exactly our response is.
In consuming the bread given to us when we participate in the Eucharist, we believe that we become the body of Christ with those gathered with us in our parish community, and the body of Christ for one another and for those we encounter each day. In drinking from the chalice, we drink in Jesus’ life of compassion, kindness, selflessness and love. As these flow through us, we become what we have received: a sacrament of unity, peace and reconciliation. As Jesus is the sacrament of God, we, in our turn, become the sacrament of Jesus for our world. It would be comforting to know that that’s how others see us.