Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Bread from Heaven

Dear Parish Faithful,

We have reached Ch. 6  of the Gospel According to St. John in our Bible Study.  With seventy-one verses, this is by far the longest chapter in this Gospel.  And, in fact, two of the seven signs that dominate the first half of the Gospel are found in Ch. 6  -  the multiplication of the loaves and Jesus walking on the water (the Sea of Galilee).  The multiplication of the loaves is the only “miracle” that is narrated by all four evangelists, pointing towards its significance beyond the extraordinary event of Jesus feeding five thousand persons with five barley loaves and two fish.  There are clear Eucharistic allusions in St. John’s account – as there are within the Synoptic Gospels – that are later deepened in the chapter in the profound “Bread of Life” discourse by Jesus.  When Jesus multiplied the loaves, He is said to have “given thanks” (v. 11).  The verb is based on the Gk word eucharisto which is, of course, not only the Gk. for “thanksgiving,”  but the word that we use for the consecrated bread that we receive as the Body of Christ.  Jesus Himself “distributed” the bread and the fish, as He will do with the bread and wine at the Mystical Supper.  The “fragments” that are gathered after the crowd has been fed,  referred to as klasma, is another word for the Eucharist in the early Church.  We can say with certainty that Jesus is anticipating the feeding of His flock with the Eucharistic bread that will be given to us as a continual gift following His death, resurrection, glorification and the giving of the Holy Spirit, when we also “gather together” in the assembly of the Church.

The “bread from heaven” that “my Father gives you” according to Jesus, is greater than the manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness (v. 25-34).  The “fathers” who ate the manna hungered afterwards and ultimately perished, while the  “living bread which came down from heaven” is meant to endure to “eternal life.”  (The theme is very similar to that of the “living water” that Jesus assured the Samaritan woman about in Ch. 4, as a gift welling up to eternal life).   The great discourse that Jesus delivers in this setting is composed of two parts, 6:35-50; and 51-58.  In the first part of the discourse, Jesus delivers one of His many great “I am” sayings that characterize this Gospel:  “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (v. 35).  This “bread” is a metaphor for the divine revelation that Jesus brings from the Father.  He who “believes” this “has eternal life” (v. 47).  In the second part of the discourse, the bread is the “flesh” of  the Eucharist, revealed in such a way that no other interpretation is possible:  “I am the living bread which came down from heaven;  if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51).  To make that perfectly clear, Jesus goes on to say:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v. 53-54).

The word for “eating” – the Gk. trogo – means to “chew” or “gnaw.”  This is a different word from the usual Gk. word for eating. It is used four times in this part of the Bread of Life discourse (v. 54, 56,57,58).  It is meant to convey the very physical process of eating or “feeding.”  There is no room here for a “symbolic” interpretation of the words of Jesus concerning the Eucharist.  This is a graphic sacramental realism!

The two parts of the discourse are thus reflected in the Liturgy to this day.  In the first part of the Liturgy (of the Word), what is stressed is our belief that Jesus is the wisdom of God, the Holy one who reveals the will of the Father to us.  This is the “bread from heaven” that nourishes us in the hearing of the holy Gospel.  In the second part of the Liturgy (of the Faithful), we receive the Eucharist as true food that unites us to Christ.  Here we have, in popular terms, what are referred to as Word and Sacrament.  First we are fed by the Word of God and then by the flesh and blood of the Son of Man – the Word made flesh.  All of this means that we must take the Liturgy very seriously, as the time and place where we meet and commune with Christ.  We need to be present to first hear the Word of God proclaimed in the Scriptures; and then partake of the Eucharist – the flesh and blood of the Son of Man.  We need to practice a “Eucharistic vigilance” that will preserve us from approaching the Chalice in a light-minded or casual manner.  (As Archbishop Kallistos Ware said:  "I accept frequent Communion, but not casual Communion.")

Please read the biblical text for yourself.  If you cannot or will not come to the Bible Study, then read and reflect on these magnificent passages on your own or with other family members.  Jesus has the words of eternal life.  You will not find these words anywhere else.  These words are the "living bread which came down  from heaven.”

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