St John does not have an account of the Institution
of the Blessed Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead
he devotes a long passage, from which today’s
gospel is taken, to the Bread of Life. The section
begins after the Multiplication of the Loaves
for the crowd who have returned, as Jesus tells
them, because you ate your fill. He directs their
thoughts towards faith in the one whom God has
sent. They look for a sign, and, being Jews, the
multiplication of the loaves reminds them of the
sign given by Moses, the manna in the desert.
Jesus suggests that since it was God who gave
the manna, God will give and has given a sign,
a person, who comes down from heaven and gives
life. He goes on to say he is this bread come
down from heaven and that all who believe will
be raised up on the last day.
This provokes hostility and the first argument.
“Isn’t this Jesus son of Joseph, whose father
and mother we know? He didn’t come down from heaven.”
Rather than withdraw what he has just said, Jesus
says it more strongly. I am the bread of life
. . . I am the living bread that came down from
heaven. Jesus is confronted with the same problem
as Moses, when the people murmured against him
in the desert. Faith in him is the central issue
in the passage at this stage.
“The Jews” are outraged at the suggestion of having
to eat flesh. Jesus makes things even more dramatic
by saying if you do not eat the flesh of the Son
of Man and drink his blood, you will not have
life in you. There is no room for doubt: to have
life one must eat and drink. The Greek word in
one sentence, phagein, for ‘to eat’ becomes in
the next sentence trogein, ‘to chew’. There is
no shortage of realism here. Furthermore, Jewish
religious practice had strong views about the
blood, where life was found. Food has to be kosher.
Animals have to be bled to death. Now Jesus gives
a challenge to all this, not merely eating flesh
but drinking blood. He is dealing primarily with
faith in himself and in the Father who sent him,
but the words used point to the shedding of blood
in sacrifice and to the Eucharist. The use of
trogein ‘to munch’ or ‘to chew’ means that there
is more to this than just belief. The living Father
has sent the Son to give life and he who eats
will live. He then introduces the idea of his
resurrection, to show that what has just told
them is real but different.
John is working at two levels. He insists that
Jesus reveals God, the true bread from heaven,
making perfect the manna which fell from heaven
in the desert. But all this is made concrete and
available in the Eucharist, where life comes from
the broken flesh and spilled blood of Jesus. In
him the long history of sacrifice is completed
and brought to perfection: originally human sacrifice,
then that of animals (Abraham and Isaac), then
in the words of Hosea: What I want is mercy and
not sacrifice [6:6]. ‘To sacrifice’ [from Latin,
meaning ‘to make sacred’] is no longer about killing,
but about living and giving life to one’s sisters
and brothers, the fruit of the sacrifice of the
Son of Man, given up for us.
• The sentence following this passage begins:
Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said:
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?
And eventually many of his disciples drew back
and no longer went about with him, a response
experienced by early Christians and by Christians
in all ages. Yet Jesus made no change in what
he said. How closely do I go about with him?
Do I think about my life in the Eucharist?
• The Eucharist means offering
Mass and receiving Holy Communion, of course.
How might I improve my devotion to Jesus really
present? Could I spend more time in his presence?
How about my sense of reverence in church or
when passing a church?
• Jesus says the Eucharist
is life-giving. How good am I at communicating
to those around me the sense of life received
that I feel, or do I talk in terms of obligation
• Would it be true to say
that, while we go to Mass in public, along with
others, my prayer after Holy Communion tends
to be private and personal, focussed on myself,
my own problem, my own shortcomings. Might there
be more to it than that?
• Do you help the priest improve
the quality of his homily, by prayer if not
by discussion? Both preacher and hearer have
to be in touch with the Holy Spirit.