Lectio: 20th Sunday of ordinary time (B)
Jesus, the bread of life
Let us invoke the presence of God
Shaddai, God of the mountain,
You who make of our fragile life
the rock of Your dwelling place,
lead our mind
to strike the rock of the desert,
so that water may gush to quench our thirst.
May the poverty of our feelings
cover us as with a mantle in the darkness of the night
and may it open our heart to hear the echo of silence
until the dawn,
wrapping us with the light of the new morning,
may bring us,
with the spent embers of the fire of the shepherds of the Absolute
who have kept vigil for us close to the divine Master,
the flavor of the holy memory.
a) The text:
Jesus said to the 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 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."
b) A moment of silence:
Let us allow the voice of the Word to resonate within us.
a) Some questions:
I am the bread of life… Jesus, flesh and blood, bread and wine. These words work a change on the altar, as Augustine says: “If you take away the words, all you have is bread and wine; add the words and it becomes something else. This something else is the body and blood of Christ. Take the words away, all you have is bread and wine; add the words and they become sacrament.” How important is the word of God for me? If the word is pronounced over my flesh can it make me become bread for the world?
b) Let us enter into the text:
v. 51. ”I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, for the life of the world.” John’s Gospel does not recount the institution of the Eucharist, but rather the meaning it assumes in the life of the Christian community. The symbolism of the washing of the feet and the new commandment (Jn 13:1-35) point to the bread broken and the wine poured. The theological content is the same as that in the synoptic Gospels. John’s ritual tradition can, however, be found in the “Eucharistic discourse” that follows the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves (Jn 6:26-65). This text brings to light the deep meaning of Christ’s existence given for the world, a gift that is the source of life and that leads to a deep communion in the new commandment of membership. The reference to the ancient miracle of the manna explains the paschal symbolism where the idea of death is taken up and overcome by life: “Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread which comes down from heaven, so that a person may eat it and not die” (Jn 6:49-50). The bread of heaven (cf. Ex 16; Jn 6:31-32) figuratively or in reality is not meant so much for the individual as for the community of believers, even though everyone is called to partake personally of the food given for all. Anyone who eats the living bread will not die: the food of the revelation is the place where life never ends. From the bread, John goes on to use another expression to point to the body: sarx. In the Bible this word denotes a human person in his or her fragile and weak reality before God, and in John it denotes the human reality of the divine Word made man (Jn 1:14a): the bread is identified with the very flesh of Jesus. Here it is not a question of metaphorical bread, that is, of the revelation of Christ in the world, but of the Eucharistic bread. While revelation, that is, the bread of life identified with the person of Jesus (Jn 6:35), is the gift of the Father (the verb to give is used in the present, v. 32), the Eucharistic bread, that is the body of Jesus will be offered by Him through His death on the cross prefigured in the consecration of the bread and wine at the supper: “and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).
v. 52. Then the Jews started arguing among themselves, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Here begins the drama of a way of thinking that stops at the threshold of the visible and material and dares not cross the veil of the mystery. This is the scandal of those who believe without believing… of those who pretend to know but do not know. Flesh to eat: the celebration of the Passover, the perennial rite that will go on from generation to generation, a feast for the Lord and a memorial (cf. Ex 12:14), whose meaning is Christ. Jesus’ invitation to do what He has done “in memory” of Him, is paralleled in the words of Moses when he prescribes the paschal anamnesis: “This day must be commemorated by you, and you must keep it as a feast” (Ex 12:14). Now, we know that for the Jews the celebration of the Passover was not just a remembrance of a past event, but also its ritualization, in the sense that God was ready to offer again to His people the salvation needed in new and different circumstances. Thus the past intruded into the present, leavening by its saving power. In the same way the Eucharistic sacrifice “will be able” to give to the centuries “flesh to eat.”
vv. 53. Jesus said, “In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” John, like the synoptic Gospels, uses various expressions when speaking of Christ’s giving of Himself in death, thus not wishing to convey a separation of parts, but the totality of the person given: the spiritualized corporeality of the risen Christ, fully permeated by the Holy Spirit in the Paschal event, will become source of life for all believers, especially through the Eucharist, that unites closely each one of them with the glorified Christ seated at the right hand of the Father, and making each one partake of His own divine life. John does not mention bread and wine, but directly what is signified by them: flesh to eat because Christ is presence that nourishes and blood to drink – a sacrilegious act for the Jews – because Christ is the sacrificed lamb. The sacramental liturgical character is evident here: Jesus insists on the reality of the flesh and of the blood referring to His death, because in the act of sacrificing the sacrificial victims the flesh became separated from the blood.
54. Anyone who does eat My flesh and drink My blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. The Passover celebrated by Jesus, the Jews, and by the early Christians acquires a new soul: that of the resurrection of Christ, the final exodus of perfect and full freedom (Jn 19:31-37), which in the Eucharist finds the new memorial, symbol of the Bread of life that sustains during the journey in the desert, sacrifice and presence that sustains the people of God, the Church, and having crossed the waters of regeneration, will not tire of making memory, as He said, (Lk 22:19; 1Cor 11:24) until the eternal Passover. Attracted and penetrated by the presence of the Word made flesh, Christians will live their Pesach throughout history, the passage from the slavery of sin to the freedom of children of God. In conforming themselves to Christ, they will be able to proclaim the wonderful works of His admirable light, offering the Eucharist of His corporeality: living sacrifice, holy and pleasing in a spiritual cult (Rom 12:1) that befits the people of His victory, a chosen race, a royal priesthood (cf. 1 Pt 2:9).
vv. 55-56. For My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood lives in Me and I live in that person. This promise of the life of Christ influences greatly the life of believers: «Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood lives in Me and I live in that person» (Jn 6:56). The communion of life that Jesus has with the Father is offered to all who eat the sacrificed body of Christ. This is not to be understood as the magic concession of a sacramental food that automatically confers eternal life to those who eat it. This giving of the flesh and blood needs explanation to make it intelligible and to provide the necessary understanding of God’s action, it needs faith on the part of those who take part in the Eucharistic banquet, and it first needs God’s action, that of His Spirit, without which there can be no listening or faith.
v. 57. As the living Father sent Me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats Me will also draw life from Me. The stress is not placed on the cult as the peak and foundation of love, but on the unity of the body of Christ living and working within the community. There is no liturgy without life. “A Eucharist without fraternal love is equal to self condemnation, because the body of Christ, that is the community, is despised.” Indeed, in the Eucharistic liturgy the past, present and future of the history of salvation find an efficient symbol for the Christian community, which expresses but never substitutes for the experience of faith that must always be present in history. Through the inseparable Supper and Cross, the people of God have come into the ancient promises, the true land across the sea, across the desert, across the river, a land of milk and honey, of freedom capable of obedience. All the great ancient plans find in this hour (cf. Jn 17:1) their fulfillment; from the promise made to Abraham (Gen 17:1-8) to the Passover of the Exodus (Ex 12:1-51). This is a decisive moment that gathers the whole past of the people (cf. DV 4) and the first most noble Eucharist ever celebrated of the new covenant is offered to the Father: the fruitful fulfillment of all expectations on the altar of the cross.
v. 58. “This is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.” When Jesus pronounces the words “This is My body” and “This is My blood,” He establishes a real and objective relationship between those material elements and the mystery of His death, which finds its crowning glory in the resurrection. These are creative words of a new situation with common elements in human experience, words that will always and truly realize the mysterious presence of the living Christ. The elements chosen were meant to be and are symbol and instrument at the same time. The element of bread, which because of its relationship to life has by itself an eschatological significance (cf. Lk 14:15), is easily seen as an indispensable food and a universal means of sharing. The element of wine, because of its natural symbolism, connotes the fullness of life and the expansion of the joy of a person (cf. Ps 103:15). In the existential Semitic view, the effectiveness of the system of signs is taken for granted. It makes distinctions that make it possible to comprehend mysteries by faith where the senses fail. By referring and going back to the desert and the manna, this different “Pasch,” the material object and the sign, come together, but concupiscence, which is from the flesh, transforms the sign into matter, while the desire, which is from the spirit, transforms the matter into sign.” (P. Beauchamp, L’uno e l’altro testamento, Paideia Ed., Brescia 1985, p. 54). In fact, the manna from heaven comes from God in an invisible form and thus lacks identity. This lack of evidence is seen clearly in the etymology of the word “manna”: “What is it?” (Ex 16:15). This says what it is, a name given to almost nothing, a sign and not a thing, a signed sign. It is proven in the moment it disappears, because one is tempted to remedy that which disappears, to make provision of manna so as not to run short. This is the price of what disappears to the senses. The alternation is the time of the desert. The manna is bread that obeys the laws of Him who gives it. The law, that the manna signifies, is to expect everything from Him: what is required is belief. Because of its lack of substance, manna creates the desire for more solid support; but in the place called “sepulchres of greed” the thing, deprived of sign, brings death (Num 11:34). In the desert what urges people to go ahead with confidence is this seeing the manna either as a sign or as a thing in itself and thus either believe or die.
c) Let us meditate:
Jesus fulfills the true Pesach of human history: “Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that His hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were His in the world, loved them to the end. While they were at supper…» (Jn 13:1). To pass over: the new Pasch is precisely this passing over of Christ from this world to the Father through the blood of His sacrifice. The Eucharist is the memorial, bread of the desert and saving presence, covenant of fidelity and communion written in the person of the Word. The history of salvation that for Israel is made up of events, names and places, leads to a reflection of faith over an experience of life that makes the name of Yahweh not just one name among many but the only Name. Everything begins from an encounter, a dialogical event between God and humanity that translates into a covenant of alliance, old and new. The sea of rushes is the last frontier of slavery and beyond it lies the spacious territory of freedom. In this watery sepulcher the old body of Israel is laid to rest and the new and free Israel rises. This is where Israel’s identity is born. Every time that this passage through the waters of birth is evoked more than just as a historical event to be remembered, the eschatological event will arise, capable of a divine fullness that becomes present, sacramental sign of God’s faithful initiative today for the new generations, in expectation of the final liberation that the Lord will provide. It is the gasp of a people that on the eve of the Pesach finds its deep identity individually and as a people, the eve when the Son of the living God gives Himself wholly in the form of food and drink.
What return can I make to Yahweh
for His generosity to me?
I shall take up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of Yahweh.
I shall fulfill my vows to Yahweh,
witnessed by all His people.
Precious in Yahweh's sight
is the death of His faithful.
I beg You, Yahweh!
I am Your servant,
I am Your servant
and my mother was Your servant;
You have undone my fetters.
I shall offer You a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of Yahweh.
I shall fulfill my vows to Yahweh,
witnessed by all His people,
in the courts of the house of Yahweh,
in your very heart, Jerusalem.
When we think of You, Lord, we do not recall events that took place and were fulfilled long ago, but we come into contact with Your reality ever present and alive. We see Your constant passage among us. You intervene in our life to restore our likeness to You, so that we may not be disfigured by the stones of the law, but may find our fullest expression in Your face as Father, revealed in the face of a man, Jesus, the promise of fidelity and love even unto death. It is not necessary at all to go out of ordinary existence to meet You because the care You take of Your creatures unfolds over our human affairs like a scroll in the proximity of an experience. You, Creator of heaven and earth, indeed do hide in the folds of history and, even though at first obscurely and implicitly, You allow us to meet You in Your transcendence, which is never absent from ordinary events. When our reflection on life brings us to an acknowledgment of Your liberating presence, this meeting can only be celebrated, sung, expressed by sacred symbols, relived festively in great joy. Thus we do not come to You alone, but as a people of the covenant. The wonder of Your presence is always purely gratuitous: in the members of the Church, where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus (Mt 18:20), in the pages of Sacred Scripture, in evangelical preaching, in the poor and suffering (Mt 25:40), in the sacramental actions of ordained ministers. But it is in the Eucharistic sacrifice that Your presence becomes real; in the Body and Blood there is the whole of the humanity and divinity of the risen Lord, present substantially.