What I would like to share with you is a very modest reflection on verse 31 of the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John: He gave them bread from heaven to eat. This whole chapter can be considered a most refined “homily: by Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, actively present back then, as He is present today in our midst. In his “homily” the Lord Jesus, shockingly, introduces ”Himself to us as the One Who gives His people the Bread from Heaven and also Who is, Himself, the Bread from heaven.
As we recover from our initial shock we can take spiritual pleasure in and benefit more from what the Lord teaches us. First of all, we should enjoy the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament there are many prefigurations, many events that are designed to prepare us for a deeper and fuller understanding of our Eucharistic celebrations.
The very phrase “He gave them Bread from heaven to eat” involves several Old Testament phrases referring to the same idea with the same message. The nourishment that God provided for the prophet Elijah along with the command to get up and eat for the journey is always long, has always been taken by the Church as an event clarifying for her the necessity of being nourished often with the Bread from heaven on the journey of faith towards the Kingdom. This continuity, then, shows us unmistakably how, from all eternity, God has intended the Eucharist to be the center, the heart, the soul of our life on earth.
The teachings of the Lord on the Eucharist show also continuity of belief down the centuries of the life of the Church. The Lord’s teaching deals, first, with Himself as nourishment at the Table of the Word. Jesus is the Word of God Who came down from heaven and became flesh. Throughout the Bible, the analogy that best describes the acceptance of the challenge presented to each believer by God’s Word is precisely eating, consuming the Word and assimilating it the way we do with our daily food intake. We find this image forcefully described in the life of the prophet Ezekiel (cf. Ezekiel 3:1-3).
In the book of Revelation we have a repeat of the same experience (cf. Revelation 10: 9-10) and we find reference of the same concept in Proverbs:
Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns; She has dressed her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table. She has sent out her maidens; she calls from the heights out over the city: “Let whoever is simple turn in here; to him who lacks understanding, I say, Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! (cf. Proverbs 9:1-5)
Three Sundays ago, we saw how Jesus, confronted by people who were exhausted and shepherd-less, in a situation of emergency, fed them His Word as great length (cf. Mark 6: 34). Within the first part of today’s “homily” the Lord underlines the same type of feeding on God’s Word: They shall all be taught by God.
The feeding first on Jesus as God’s Word is challenging all believers to believe in such Word because Jesus has the words of everlasting life (cf. Peter’s reaction later on in John 6:68). Thus, mindful of all this, in faithful continuity with the Old Testament, at every Holy Mass, the Church spreads before us first the Table of the Word.
The second part of the “homily” shifts abruptly into a completely new field. It is a new field because, unlike the Old Testament prefigurations of eating God’s Word, there is no parallel in the Old Testament of feeding on the flesh of anyone, let alone the Son of Man’s! The verbs used are intentionally shocking: the repetition of the verb “to eat,” acquires a very graphic connotation: to eat becomes to gnaw, the way a dog gnaws, stubbornly, at the last shreds of meat clinging to a bone.
To be sure, it is not an invitation to engage in cannibalism; we are not to feed on the physical flesh of the Lord but on His Spirit-filled Flesh, the sacramental Flesh of the Son of Man Who came down from heaven. Invariably, the Table of the Sacrament follows the Table of the Word. However, at the end, we realize that the two Tables are actually one Table, Jesus, the Bread of Life that came down from heaven to offer us eternal life and a share in His divine nature.
Throughout this ”homily” we remain free to accept the Lord’s teachings or to reject them. Let us remember that none of us, at this stage of his/her life, will reject Jesus outright; we are not that foolish! We might be tempted, instead, to feed only on one of the two Tables. To feed only on the Table of the Word would be as “weak” as feeding on space station food and little sips of water, with no real lasting nourishment and no real, durable benefit. To feed only on the Table of the Sacrament would be “sacred magic,” with no challenge to our sin-disposed life, no trial-tested spiritual progress and no way of carrying out in concrete forms the new commandment of loving each other the way Jesus loved us on the cross.
Eternal life is guaranteed only by feeding, by assimilating the “whole” Son of Man at the Table of Life, a Table made up of Jesus as God’s Word and Jesus as Sacrament of salvation.