• Dt 8:2-3, 14b-16a
• Psa 147:12-13, 14-15, 19-20
• 1 Cor 10:16-17
• Jn 6:51-58
In my late teens I began to have questions about the beliefs and practices of the small Fundamentalist Bible chapel—co-founded by my parents—I had attended most of my life. Many of these questions were only half-formed at the time, but later came into sharper focus, causing me to critically rethink much I had been taught.
Why was it, I wondered, I had heard several sermons about Rahab the harlot (Josh 2 and 6), but only one about Mary, the mother of Jesus? Why did we celebrate Easter and the Resurrection of Christ, but ignored Good Friday and the commemoration of his death? And why did we celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Sunday, but always emphasized that our communion service was only “symbolic” in nature?
This latter topic was especially vexing. And it became even more troubling after I attended an Evangelical Bible college for two years. I heard sermons and lectures about the miraculous gift of the manna (Ex 16; Num 11), but I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon or lecture about the final twenty verses of the sixth chapter of John. That passage fascinated and troubled me. I read it again and again, mulling over the stunning words, heard in today’s Gospel reading, uttered by Jesus: “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.”
John 6, especially verses 51-71, was the most bothersome passage in the Bible for me as a Protestant. That section of Scripture played an essential role in the decision my wife and I made to become Catholic, entering the Church together in 1997. Yes, there were many other important issues, including Church authority, history, Mary, and the other sacraments. But at the heart of our hunger was a desire for the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
“For my flesh is true food,” Jesus told his disciples and the others listening to him, “and my blood is true drink.” I became convinced of what the Church taught—and had taught for two thousand years—about the Real Presence: “In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 1365).
Four times in John 6 the words “Amen, amen” (or “Truly, truly) are uttered by Jesus (vs 26, 32, 47, 53). Each signifies a transition and a teaching of great importance; each is a deeper revelation into the person and work of Christ. First, Jesus rebuked the people for seeking only after earthly, temporal food—they instead should believe in him (v. 29). Secondly, Jesus emphasized that it is his Father, not Moses, who gave the manna in the desert. Third, Jesus strongly stated that belief in him is eternal life (v. 47) and that he is “the bread of life” (v. 48). He then announced, to the amazement of those present, that the bread he referred to is his flesh. “This is the bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus stated, “Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Jesus had fed the people real bread (Jn 6:1-14). He then offered real, eternal life to those who believed in him. And then he offered his real flesh as food and his real blood as drink. Natural food, of course, sustains natural life. And the manna, although given in a miraculous manner, was still natural food for natural life. But the new manna, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, is supernatural food given for supernatural life. This new manna, the Eucharist, is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). It is, as Paul wrote the Corinthians, participation in the blood and body of Christ.
It is, for me, no longer bothersome, but still stunning.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the May 25, 2008, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)