First reading: Deut 8:2-3, 14-16
Psalm: Psalm 147
Second reading: 1 Cor 10:16-17
Gospel: John 6:51-58
Link to readings.
The commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday understandably tends to be overshadowed by thought of the fate that awaits Jesus on Good Friday. One of the advantages of having a separate feast, Corpus Christi, devoted to the mystery is that it enables the Eucharist to be set in the wider scriptural context that has attended it from the beginning. Central to that context and brought out particularly by the readings set down for today is the tradition of the Israelites being fed during their Sinai wandering by ‘bread from heaven’—by God’s gift of the manna.
The Book of Deuteronomy is cast entirely in the form of a sermon preached by Moses to the Israelites on the point of entering the Promised Land. Moses reminds them of all that had happened to them during the years of desert wandering. This is so that when they enter the land, enjoyment of its fruits and comforts will not cause them to become forgetful of their dependence upon the Lord.
As the excerpt that forms today’s First Reading, Deut 8:2-3, 14-16, makes clear, the long years of desert wandering had been a time of testing. Bereft of all natural source of food and water and in fact passing constantly through a ‘dreadful wilderness’, the Israelites had to rely upon God’s provision of these essentials: water from the rock and the manna sent down from heaven. In this situation they had come to know the Lord as the Giver of all that is necessary for protection and life. The manna was indeed the ‘Bread of Life’.
The long sequence that makes up chapter 6 of the Fourth Gospel relates this theme of the manna as ‘Bread from Heaven’ to the Christian Eucharist. It does not do so immediately, however. It is only towards the end—in fact in the passage appearing today’s Gospel (John 6:51-58)—that the discourse becomes explicitly ‘eucharistic’ in the sense of referring directly to the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord.
Before this, Jesus speaks of himself as the ‘Bread of Life’ in a more general sense—one of high christological signficance. He senses that the people want him to emulate Moses, who arranged for ‘bread’ (the manna) to be given to their ancestors ‘from heaven’. The comparison with Moses is something Jesus refuses entirely. He is not just another Moses-like figure turning on miracles for the people. The true point of comparison is the Manna: he is the true ‘Bread from heaven’. Whereas the original manna sustained the Israelites only for a time—after which in due course they died—this ‘Bread from heaven’ will sustain people for eternal life. Union with him and the revelation of God that he offers will communicate a share in the eternal life of God. It is in this sense that Jesus says, ‘Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever’.
The original manna was a gift from God to sustain the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness. The new Bread from heaven is a gift from God in a far more remarkable way. Jesus describes the bread that he will give as ‘my flesh for the life of the world’ (v. 51c). The allusion is to his death, in which, in a supreme gift of love, he will lay down his human life that the world might share his divine eternal life.
The explicitly eucharistic allusions when they appear towards the end of the passage (‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’) may seem intrusive. But this sense falls away when we consider the full meaning of the Eucharist. The body and blood of the Lord are always the body ‘given up’ for us and the cup ‘poured out’ for us. The Eucharist always ‘proclaims the death of the Lord’ (1 Cor 11:26) in the sense of its representing the outpouring of Christ’s sacrificial love for the world. Thus there is a real continuity between the ‘Bread from heaven’ allusions of the wider flow of John 6 and the more specifically eucharistic references. In the Eucharist believers encounter and receive the outpouring of divine love and communication of life foreshadowed in the experience of the Israelites at the time of their desert wandering.
The Second Reading, 1 Cor 10:16-17, brief though it is, takes us to the heart of Paul’s theology of the eucharist focused upon the idea of ‘communion’ (koinonia). As explained last week, ‘communion’ is the bond set up between people by their common participation in some other thing. Here Paul points out that sharing in the eucharistic bread and cup, creates for believers ‘communion’ in two ‘directions’, so to speak: ‘horizontally’ with each other; ‘vertically’ with Christ.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media.