THERE IS BREAD FOR TODAY AND FOOD FOR ETERNAL LIFE
When we enter a building, we immediately realize what function is assigned to it. A classroom is decorated differently from an infirmary, a discotheque, or an office. It is easy to recognize a church with its altar and the tabernacle to house the Eucharist, the paintings and the statues of saints and the baptistery. The sacred vessels allow us to identify immediately an environment dedicated to prayer, worship, and devotional practices.
However, some of our churches' architecture and elaborate decor do not always suggest the idea of the place where the community is called to be fed at the table of the word and the bread.
Whoever enters the chapels used in the African forests immediately captures this message. The chapels are bare and unadorned huts built with mud and straw. I recall them with nostalgia. The stakes that serve as seats are arranged in a circle to promote the unity of the assembly and ensure that the participants face each other and do not turn their backs against each other. The altar is at the center. It is a table, indeed the best in the village, but simple and poor. A podium, with the lectionary, open at the reading of the day, is on the altar—nothing else.
Here they have clearly marked the two loaves, or if we like, the only bread that comes in two forms, or what is referred to as the double table. These are the signs: the altar of the Eucharist, the lectionary of the Word.
The Second Vatican Council has recalled: ‘The Church has never failed to take the bread of life, taking it from the table both of the Word of God and the body of Christ and offer it to the faithful’ (DV 21).
• To internalize the message, we repeat:“The material bread keeps us alive for another day; the Word of God gives eternal life.”
First Reading: Deuteronomy 8:2-3,14b-16a
Moses said to the people: “Remember how for forty years now the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction andfind out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.
“Do not forget the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery; who guided you through the vast and terrible desert with its saraph serpents and scorpions, its parched and waterless ground; who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the desert with manna, a food unknown to your fathers.”
Deuteronomy presents itself as a collection of speeches by Moses on Mount Nebo before he died. It was written many centuries later, in the years immediately before the end of the monarchy and the destruction of Jerusalem. It reflects the events of the Exodus, which aims to shed light on the dramatic situation in which Israel is living: It is surrounded by enemies and coming close to ruin. What to do in such a difficult time?
In the book of Deuteronomy, a heartfelt invitation is repeatedly addressed to the people: remember, do not forget. Look at your past, consider what God has done, keep in mind the wonders he accomplished in your favor, always remember his works of salvation: “Remember that you were once enslaved in the land of Egypt, from where Yahweh, your God, brought you out with his powerful hand and outstretched arm” (Deut 5:15). “Recall the days of old, think of the years gone by; your father will teach you about them, your elders will enlighten you” (Deut 32:7).
This recommendation is repeated insistently in today’s reading. The memory of the severe hardships faced in the desert and the providential intervention of God is intended to instill confidence and hope in the present moment. The description of the difficulty is particularly alive: the desert, which opened wide before the Israelites, was “great and terrible, full of fiery serpents and scorpions, and arid land where there is no water” (v. 15). If they had to rely only on their own strength and ability, they would undoubtedly have perished. From where did salvation come?
The reading provides an answer: from “that which comes from the mouth of the Lord”(v. 13). The expression, a bit enigmatic for us, was relatively well-known in Egypt, where it showed the power of the Word of God to create utterly new nourishment. The bread was known, but the manna was a mysterious, unknown, and unexpected food. It miraculously appeared in the wilderness. The Israelites had seen this as a gift ‘coming from the mouth of the Lord.’
With this amazing food, he wanted to humiliate and test his people (vv. 2-3). As was promised, Israel had settled in a fertile country, “a land of streams and rivers, of subterranean waters that gush forth in the valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, of grapes and figs, of pomegranates and olives, a land of oil and honey” (Deut 8:7-8). Instead of being grateful and blessing the Lord, Israel had forgotten him. After “having built comfortable homes and live in them, when your livestock have multiplied, when you have silver and gold in abundance and an increase in good things of every kind, your heart became proud and forgot God” (Deut 8:13-14).
Progress, prosperity, beautiful and cozy houses, and a pleasant life are judged positively in this text. Still, the danger of wealth and well-being is denounced because they obscure his presence instead of leading to God. That is the reason for the invitation to remember, to consider the experience of the desert. There God taught his people simplicity and the bare essentials. He understood the basic needs and what stems from avarice, greed,or the craving for possession and accumulation. The confusion of want with need leads to a desire for the superfluous, the lazy, and a life of pleasure that moves people away from God.
“All these things—says Paul—were written as a warning for us” (1 Cor 10:11). The invitation to remember and not to forget is also being addressed to us. According to the biblical symbolism, the 40 years spent by the people of Israel in the desert represent an entire generation and, therefore, our whole life. During our ‘exodus’ to the “heavenly dwelling that lasts forever” (2 Cor 5:1), the Lord also offers to us an entirely new food, not just one that human beings have always known and experienced, a food ‘coming from the mouth of the Lord,’ coming from heaven like manna: his Word becomes bread.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:16-17
Brothers and sisters: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body ofChrist? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
It is difficult for complete agreement and perfect harmony to reign always in the Christian communities. It is inevitable that, even in the unity of faith, diverse views will emerge. It is especially true when it comes to theological interpretation and moral choice. It also happened in Corinth, where the issue of meat sacrificed to idols was much debated. The community was made up of converted pagans whose family members and friends continued to offer sacrifices to idols. The question was whether they could participate in these ceremonies in order not to be considered anti-social and not to be marginalized. There was a discussion on the legality of buying meat sacrificed to the gods from the market.
In Corinth, the Christians not only had different opinions, but they also took offense easily. Consequently, some were cursed, and others excommunicated. The situation had become so hot that Paul had to intervene and face the dilemma of convincing the Corinthians to maintain unity and respect for each other despite their diversity of opinion. The apostle calls up the most decisive argument at his disposal: the celebration of the Eucharist. It is from this one bread, shared by the brothers and sisters, that the community’s need for unity is born: “The bread is one, and so we, though many, form one body, sharing the one bread” (v. 17).
The Eucharist is not bread that can be eaten alone. It is bread broken and shared with the community, and this assumes that all should strive to be genuinely “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). Note well: it is the bread broken that creates unity. While it holds the community in one body, it is also a sign of distinction and a call to respect and value diversity.
Further on in the same letter, Paul will invite the Corinthians to consider as a sign of God’s benevolence and the gift of the Spirit the manifestation in the community of different charisms, ministries, and services. The diversity serves the common cause and should lead to unity: “As the body is one, having many members, and all the memberswhile being many, form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:4-12).
Gospel: John 6:51-58
Jesus said to the Jewish crowds: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
This passage concludes the so-called discourse on the bread of life, taught by Jesus in the synagogue of Capernaum, after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
The miracle aroused great wonder, which resulted in an uncontrollable enthusiasm and dangerous collective exaltation: the people saw the sign; they decided to take him by force to make him king (Jn 6:14-15).
Why do these amazed and admiring crowds seek out Jesus? One answer could be: because they understood that the power of God acts in him. Therefore, they believe in him. In reality, they are victims of a dangerous misconception. An immature faith moves them. They are interested in Jesus just because they think he can satisfy, through miracles, their material needs.
Mature faith is something else. It is the faith of those who understand that Jesus does not perform miracles to impress but introduce a deeper reality. In the healing of the man born blind, the true believer realizes that Jesus is presented as the light of the world; with the water turned into wine, he discovers the gift of the Spirit, the source of joy; in the resuscitation of Lazarus, he understands that Jesus is the Lord of life; in the bread distributed to the hungry, he beholds Jesus, the nourishment that satisfies.
Instead, in Capernaum, the crowd does not understand. It stops at the outward appearance, the surface of the event. It needs to be helped to move from the search of the “food that perishes” to what “lasts for eternal life” (Jn 6:27). A difficult task, but Jesus attempts it. He presents himself as the bread of life, which comes from heaven (Jn 6:33-35). He declares that whoever listens to him assimilates his message, his Gospel, feeds himself on the words of life. Whoever feeds on other words—even if enjoyable and captivating—ingests poisons of death.
His statement is not listened to. For the Jews, the bread that came down from heaven is the manna (Ps 78:24), and the food that nourishes is the Word of God (Is 55:1-3). How can “the son of Joseph claim such right?”—they ask indignantly. Who does he want to be? (Jn 6:42). Even the Samaritan woman had reacted similarly: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” (Jn 4:12).
Instead of mitigating his claim, Jesus makes an even more audacious one. The bread to eat is not only his doctrine but his own flesh. “The bread I shall give is my flesh, and I will give it for the life of the world.” These are the opening words of today’s passage (v. 51). To avoid misconception (not to be led to imagine cannibalism), it should be noted that when the Bible says that “man is flesh” (Gen 6:3), there is no reference to the strength, but rather weakness, fragility, and precariousness—subject to death. For example, in the face of the Israelites’ moral misery, God—says the Psalmist with bold anthropomorphism—appeases his wrath and restrains his fury because “he remembers that they were but flesh, a breeze that passes and never returns” (Ps 78:39). In the prologue of his Gospel, John says that “the word was made flesh” (Jn 1:14); he refers to lowering the Son of God, his descent to the lowest level. He underlines his acceptance of the most fleeting aspects of the human condition.
Eating this God-made flesh means recognizing that the revelation of God comes into the world through ‘the carpenter’s son’ and welcoming this wisdom coming from heaven.
Even after this clarification, however, the scandalous aspect of the proposal of Jesus remains. How can one ‘eat his person’? The shocked reaction of the listeners is understandable and justifiable. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52). They understand that he is not only referring to the spiritual assimilation of God’s revelation but also a real ‘eating.’ What does he mean?
Jesus does not care about their embarrassment. He reaffirms what he has already said, adding an even more provocative demand: it is necessary to drink his blood (vv. 52-56). Many biblical texts strictly prohibit the practice of drinking blood “for the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17:10-11), and life does not belong to man, but God. It is, therefore,about assimilating his life.
It is at this point that the discourse on the Eucharist is inserted. Before explaining the meaning that Jesus gives in his speech about this sacrament, ‘fount and summit of all Christian life,’ I would warn the readers about some reductive and even misleading interpretations. These are derived from a particular devotional and esoteric catechesis, not supported by biblical foundations. I refer to the Eucharistic spirituality that spoke of the ‘divine prisoner,’ which encouraged people to church to ‘keep company, to console Jesus.’The Eucharist is not intended to capture Jesus to keep him close, to have a chance to convince him to grant grace or take advantage of the fact that ‘he came to visit us or ‘came in our hearts.’ It was established as food to eat, and even when exposed for adoration (preferably in the pyx in which it was consecrated rather than the monstrance), it is to be consummated as food. Only in this way does it retain its authentic meaning.
If we start from the observation that faith in his word is sufficient to attain union in this life with Christ, we rightly ask: why is it necessary to receive the sacrament? Why has Jesus added a rather challenging to understand request: to eat his flesh and drink his blood under the signs of bread and wine? For lack of priests, we know that on Sunday, many Christian communities do not gather around the table of the Eucharist bread but around the Word of God. We are confident that they receive an abundance of life from this unique food available to them.
It is important that, as Jesus says in verse 54, that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life, in the same way as verse 47 states that the same result is achieved by those who believe in his word. Why then the Eucharist?
First of all, it must be emphasized that this sacrament—that really makes the Risen Christ present—is not a substitute for faith in the Word of Christ. Receiving Holy Communion is not equivalent to performing a magical ritual. The host is not some kind of pill that works automatically and heals the sick. It is not enough to receive communion often to receive the grace of the Lord. Jesus did not say to receive communion many times but to ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood.’ That is why, before receiving the Eucharistic bread, it is necessary to listen to and meditate on a Gospel passage. The reading of the Word of God is the essential premise.
When we sign a contract or enter into an alliance, we must first understand and carefully evaluate all its clauses. Whoever agrees to become one person with Christ in the sacrament must be aware of his proposal and make a firm decision to accept it. It is the meaning of the heartfelt recommendation of Paul: “Let each one, then, examine himself before eating of the bread and drinking from the cup. Otherwise, he eats and drinks his own condemnation” (1 Cor 11:28-29).
The gesture of reaching out to receive the consecrated bread is the sign of the interior disposition to accept Christ and to ensure that his thoughts become our thoughts, his words our words, his choices our choices. In the sign of the Eucharist, his person is assimilated within us, as is the bread. The change, the metamorphosis, will take place slowly. The process will be marked by success and failure, but the humble listening to the Word and communion with the Body of Christ will accomplish the miracle. One day, the disciple will relish the transformation performed in him by the Spirit at work in the sacrament, and he will exclaim, like Paul: Now “it is no longer me; Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
READ: “I am the living bread which has come from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
REFLECT: Jesus gives himself to us totally, not only to sustain our day-to-day but for us to attain the fullness of life.
PRAY: Pray to grow in understanding and appreciation of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Pray for people who find this a hard saying.
ACT: Recall an event of God’s intervention in your life and make an act of thanksgiving.