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The Season of Living Bread

Tom Nash

If you’re old enough—or perhaps have just seen them on the internet—you may recall the famous Coke commercials of the 1970s, in which a multicultural group of young people proclaim about the soft drink, “It’s the real thing!”

Well, if I may elevate the theme a bit, the Eucharist could be described as the ultimate “Real Thing,” for in it Christ offers himself on behalf of the most ethnically diverse group possible—the whole world (1 John 2:1–2)—and salvifically nourishes us with his body and blood (1 Cor. 10: 16-17).

How can Jesus’ limited human body be in more than one place? For Protestant Reformers like Ulrich Zwingli, as well as many Christians today, the miracle of the Eucharist is impossible precisely because of the finitude of Christ’s human nature.

But let us remember that it’s Christ’s human nature—the humanity of the God-man. Should we surprised that Jesus can do something miraculous regarding his otherwise limited humanity?

After all, Jesus was able to feed a multitude—including 5,000 men—with only five loaves and two fish, a miraculous account presented in all four Gospels (Matt. 14, Mark 6, Luke 9 and John 6). If Christ can wondrously overcome the finitude of mere bread and common aquatic creatures, why can’t he overcome his own humanity? Especially since Scripture reveals that Jesus is the Passover Lamb of the New Covenant (John 19:32-36; 1 Cor. 5:7), and the Passover prescriptions clearly specify that a lamb is not only offered but eaten in a communion sacrifice (Exod. 12). Indeed, if the Eucharist were merely a symbol, wouldn’t that make the “Lord’s Supper” a rather anticlimactic fulfillment of its Old Covenant precursor? (See 1 Cor. 11:17-34.)

For all of these reasons, I particularly love the liturgical summertime of Year B, the middle year of the Church’s cycle of Sunday readings. Although the Gospel of Mark is the focus of Year B, the Church treats us to the Bread of Life discourse Gospel readings (John 6) from the seventeenth through the twenty-first Sundays of Ordinary Time, along with Eucharistic prefigurements in the first readings of weeks seventeen to nineteen—the last of which we heard this past Sunday.

In week seventeen we read about the prophet Elisha, who miraculously multiplied a small number of loaves and a sack of grain, enabling them to feed a hundred men with some left over (2 Kgs. 4:42-44). No natural explanation is provided for the abundance; rather, a miracle is implied because it was accomplished “according to the word of the Lord.”

In week 18, the grumbling Israelites receive the miraculously provided natural manna (Exod. 16:2-4, 12-15), which Jesus later contrasts with his self-offered “true bread from heaven” (John 6:31-32).

And on the nineteenth Sunday we read about how Elijah, weary from a one-day sojourn in the desert, sat down and prayed for death (1 Kgs. 19:4-8).  However, miraculously sustained by a cake and water that an angel provided him, the prophet continued his journey in the desert for forty days and forty nights until he reached Mount Horeb (see also 1 Kgs. 17:8-16).

In all three of these accounts, God demonstrates that miraculously providing abundant bread is certainly not beyond his omnipotent power over the laws of nature and physics.  He calls his people to believe that he can provide abundantly from seemingly meager resources.

The twentieth and twenty-first Sundays showcase the fulfillment of these Old Testament precedents and Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-15), as Jesus makes clear he is not only to be offered but eaten, something that shocks his Jewish followers:

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 (John 6:51).

The Jews murmur in disbelief, wondering how Jesus could provide them his flesh and blood to consume (John 6:52), especially because such consumption would cut one off from communion with Old Covenant Israel, given that blood (specifically animal blood) was used to imperfectly atone for man’s sins (Lev. 17:10-14).

Yet Jesus does not relent, emphasizing the salvific power of receiving him as heavenly food:

“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. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

Many of Jesus’ Jewish followers found his words an insurmountable “hard saying” and followed him no more (John 6:60, 66). But some modern disciples of Jesus claim that these first followers misunderstood him, claiming that the Lord had earlier made clear that eating and drinking his blood was just a metaphor for believing in him: “Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus says, “he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47; see 6:40).

This argument, however, cannot be exegetically sustained for various reasons. First, it’s clear that his Jewish followers are understanding Jesus literally, again, going so far as to call his words “a hard saying” and abandoning him thereafter. And Jesus does nothing to correct their alleged misunderstanding, whereas he does with his hearers’ other erroneous inferences, such as those regarding “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6; see 16:5-12).

Instead, Jesus strongly reaffirms that he is speaking of their actually consuming him.

In addition, a figurative reading simply won’t work, because ancient Hebrew idiom already assigned a figurative meaning to eating someone’s flesh: it meant to slander someone or even desire his death. For his hearers, in the figurative sense Jesus would’ve been promising heaven to those who maligned him (see Psalms 27:2).

Given the common perception that consuming the Eucharist would cut one off from Old Covenant Israel, Jesus’ invitation to his first disciples required great faith, the radical trust of a child (Matt. 18:1-4). And so it does for us today; we who are called not only to believe that Jesus’ New Covenant blood provides atonement for our sins (Luke 22:19-20; see Exod. 24:8), but also, by its consumption, actually provides us eternal life. Such consumption is at the core of “abiding” in Jesus, of cultivating a deeper communion with him in his Church (John 6:56; see 15:1-16).

That’s why the Eucharist is the ultimate Real Thing. “The flesh is of no avail” on its own (John 6:63), but united with God via the Incarnation, and through his one paschal sacrifice of Calvary, Jesus’ body and blood become “the food which endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).

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