The Real Presence
The whole discourse of today’s gospel centers on one biblical text, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (v. 31)
Exod 16:4: “I will now rain down bread from heaven for you”;
Neh 9:15: “Food from heaven you gave them in their hunger”;
Ps 78:24: “He rained manna upon them for food and gave them heavenly bread”;
Ps 105:40: “ … and with bread from heaven he satisfied them.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
It is important to note here that the operative verb here is “believe.” Jesus as bread from heaven is accepted and consumed through the belief required in verses 35, 40, 47. What this means is that this is a faith nourishment. Jesus is bread from heaven, feeding all believers, in the same sense that Old Testament wisdom nourished all who accepted it.
To eat (vv. 48–59). In this final section, the vocabulary changes radically. The significant words are “flesh,” “blood,” “eat,” and “drink.” Note the constant repetition of “eat” in verses 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 58. “Feed on” (an even more physical verb in the Greek than “eat”) occurs in verse 57 of the NAB. These verbs become overwhelmingly insistent, as does the constant reference to flesh and blood, food and drink. The meaning of the discourse has changed. Where in the preceding section Jesus nourished through wisdom-revelation those who believed, the verb “believe” has now completely disappeared and is replaced by “eat,” “feed on.” Our homilist is clearly speaking now of sacramental nourishment, of the food and drink that one eats and feeds upon, of the Eucharistic nourishment provided by the flesh and blood of the Son of Man (v. 53). The “Son of Man” phraseology tells us that this is not the physical flesh and blood of the earthly Jesus that we are asked to eat and drink but the spiritual, Spirit-filled flesh and blood of the heavenly Son of Man. Verse 58 ties the homily together by referring back to the central phrase of verse 31.
What this discourse does is deliver a rich and multi-faceted exposition of the Jesus-as-Bread-of-Life theme. Jesus is first of all the giver of the bread, a new Moses. He is also the bread of wisdom and revelation who nourishes all who come to him in faith. He is, finally, the Eucharistic source of eternal life for all who eat and drink the flesh and blood of the heavenly and glorified Son of Man. John has also succeeded, with this transfer, to unite in this one chapter the essentials of Christian Eucharist, the word and the bread — the revealing word of verses 35–47 and the sacramental bread of verses 48–59.
If this discourse produced serious problems even for followers of Jesus, it is inevitable that it will produce difficulties for the present-day reader.
51 “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
52 Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”
53 So Jesus said to them, “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 yourselves.
54 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
55 “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.
56 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.
57 “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.
58 “This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”
Using the image of manna given by God in the wilderness, he states quite blatantly that the bread one must eat “for the life of the world is my flesh”. When these words elicit skepticism for many hearers, he does not back away, or try again with more “spiritual” language. Instead, his response is a declaration, expressed in as dogmatic and negative a way as one could imagine, ”Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”. Lest he be misunderstood, he repeats it yet again, this time positively, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life”. He repeats it still another time, even more emphatically, if that is possible, “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”. Then in an even deeper fashion, he declares that this Eucharistic act is the expression of his ongoing incarnation, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. Again, “Whoever eats me will live because of me”; and again, “The one who eats this bread will live forever.
There is no way that these thoroughly Eucharistic declarations are somehow a misunderstanding, or that the listeners were wrong in understanding these teachings in a somewhat literal fashion. The repetition makes only too clear that Jesus indeed meant what he said, over and over. And because he repeated these words enough times for the listeners to understand that he meant what he said in all seriousness, the sacred moment was at hand. “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus knew very well what they were murmuring, and so it is significant that he again refused to make his declarations less difficult by trying a more symbolic or “spiritual” rendition. In fact, the opposite was the case. He insisted, even more strongly, on what he had said, using their disbelief as the context for declaring that to believe in what we are calling the “World of Sacrament” as the nature of Christian life is not within a person’s own power. So difficult to believe is this central issue, that the faith to do so is the supreme gift of God.
The lofty mystery which has been at the heart of our Catholic tradition for two millennia comes to full light. The Eucharist defines who we are: those intimately connected to Jesus because we share in his very body and blood. In Eucharist, we share the same life as the Father and the Son. We truly are to eat “the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” if we wish to have life.
In last Sunday’s gospel “the bread that came down from heaven” was teaching; the way one consumes this bread is by learning and believing. This Sunday the focus is on the heavenly bread which Jesus identifies as his own flesh. This bread one consumes by eating: “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” In his flesh and blood Jesus is the source of life for believers. The bread Jesus gives us not only fills empty bellies but is a heavenly bread which fill us with the divine presence. The more we taste of Jesus, the more we know who he is.
The Lectionary repeats the psalm used last Sunday and will do so again next week. In her wisdom the Church knows what faith needs and so she offers over and over this invitation to experience the life-giving nourishment that is Jesus. The more we taste of Jesus, the more we know who he is. This is the feasting that gives everlasting life.
What this means is that when the Church celebrates this event, God has promised to be especially present in communion through the bread and wine. What is at stake is Christ’s promise. On faith we trust that the God who promises is faithful. God can do what God promises. The “Real Presence” is to be believed because of Christ’s promise, not because of any conclusion drawn from evidence. The word sacrament does mean “mystery”, and so it should remain.