1 Cor 10, 16-17
Jn 6, 51-58
In the Eucharist, the believer not only declares and expresses his faith in the mystery of the Son of Man, who has come down from heaven and has given life to the world, but also finds the nourishment for this same faith. To “eat” sacramentally the bread of life is to enter in communion with Him who has come down from heaven and has given life to the world.
The first reading (Dt 8, 2-3. 14-16) brings to mind Israel’s journey in the desert, interpreted here as a trial that has humiliated Israel (vv. 2-3). In the desert the people has experienced “hunger” radically, that is to say, they have felt physically their frailty and limitation through the need for “food” in order to subsist. Above all they have lived the experience of being nourished by “another”: by God who gave them a food that the people could not secure for themselves through their own effort. That is why this text from the Deuteronomy invites us to remember the manna, “a food unknown to you and your fathers” (Dt 8, 3).
Israel, in fact, was sustained with an unknown food since the manna is a “bread rain down from heaven” (Ex 16, 4) instead of sprouting from the earth. This bread is a sign of God and of his word, source of true life for the people. Therefore only he who acknowledges that man lives not by bread alone (that which sprouts from the earth and enters the mouth), but also and above all by the word of the Lord “that comes out from the mouth of God” (which comes from heaven) in order to enter there where man can welcome it, in the ears and in the heart (Dt 8, 3), understands the sign of the manna.
This is the great lesson of that food of the desert. In the experience of their powerlessness and frailty, Israel has discovered a modest but effective sign of the love of God. In their experience in the desert, when all human support fails and humiliation for their own insufficiency is felt, they also experience the presence (invisible) of the Father who lovingly provides the needs of his children. The desert has taught Israel that they have to “eat”, that is, that they have to accept and make use of that little sign of God in order to survive. To accept this gift is already passing the trial of the desert.
The manna should be gathered day after day (Ex 16, 18), without preoccupying oneself of tomorrow. To accumulate was useless. The food kept in quantity more than what was strictly necessary became rotten (Ex 16, 19-20; cf. Lk 12, 13-21. 29-31). It was thus taught to Israel to have an infinite trust in God’s merciful providence. In the desert, the Israelite was called to faith-trust. In order to pass the trial of the desert, he should accept only what God was giving him for the day, without preoccupying himself of tomorrow (cf. Mt 6, 26-29).
If the desert is a trial, comfort and possession of land are also a danger to Israel (Dt 8, 7-20). Chapter 8 of Deuteronomy also faces this danger. The people live in great material prosperity, with beautiful houses, plenty of flocks, silver and gold (Dt 8, 12-13). This situation of comfort, fruit of the salvific action of God, paradoxically becomes dangerous; they run risk of “forgetting” the Lord. They can perish, not because of the food or for lack of protection against their enemies, as in the desert, but they can die for lack of inner truth, because they forget Yahweh (Dt 8, 14). The heart becomes “haughty” (Dt 8, 14) when man forgets God; he constructs idols which he adores, and he prostrates before what is beautiful, strong and pleasant.
That is why Deuteronomy makes a call to the “memory” of the people, so as “not to become unmindful of the Lord, your God” (Dt 8, 14). Recalling the liberation from slavery of Egypt through the powerful hand of the Lord (Dt 8, 14) as well as the memory of the humiliating but necessary experience in the desert (v. 16) have the essential function of placing as foundation of life the loving presence of the Lord in history. The people will have to “remember” always the essential experience of the desert, when they lived in total dependence on God. The Israelite is called to place as basis of his existence, not material comfort and economic prosperity, but that gift that does not perish, the gift of the divine word. The word of God that “brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the desert with manna, a food unknown to your fathers, that he might afflict you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end” (Dt 8, 15b-16).
The second reading (1 Cor 10, 16-17) places us before the mystery of another food which is the fundamental nourishment of the life of the Christian and of the ecclesial community: the body and blood of Christ. It is probably about the oldest testimony in the New Testament regarding the mystery of the Eucharist. In this brief Eucharistic allusion, Paul emphasises above all the dimension of “participation” and “communion” that is derived from the act of taking the body and blood of the Lord. Participation in the Eucharist creates a communion with Christ, so profound that it produces and sustains the communion with the brethren.
It deals with a fundamental theological observation in order to avoid that the Eucharistic celebration become an empty rite and no longer be an authentic “communion with the body and blood of the Lord”. Communion with Christ in the Eucharist is realized in the relationships of fraternity and of justice that the sacrament creates among men and women: “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, many though we are, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10, 17). The Eucharist, memorial of the offering of the love of Jesus, creates a profound theological bond among the brothers and therefore should be lived by the believers with the same spirit of self-giving and charity with which the Lord “gave up” his body and blood on the cross for “you”.
The Eucharistic celebration embraces and fills all of history, giving it a new meaning: it really proclaims Jesus in his mystery of love and self-gift on the cross (past); the community, obedient to the command of its Lord, will have to repeat continuously the gesture of the supper while history lasts “in memory of me” (1 Cor 11, 24) (present); and they will always do it with the hope of his glorious return, “until he comes” (1 Cor 11, 26) (future). The mystery of “communion” and “participation” in the Eucharist originates from the love of Christ who gives himself for us and therefore must always be lived and celebrated in love and generous self-giving, after the image of the Lord, without divisions nor hypocrisy.
The gospel (Jn 6, 51-58) corresponds to the last part of the discourse that John places in the mouth of Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus is presented as the “the living bread come down from heaven”, who gives life to whoever “eats” it (v. 51). In v. 58 a subsequent explanation is added: “This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and died nonetheless, the man who feeds on this bread shall live forever.” The manna given by God in the desert (cf. first reading), in fact, announced the real “bread” that is Jesus, given by God and who has given himself until death in order to achieve our passage from death to life.
When the Gospel text affirms: “the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (v. 51), the term “flesh” (Greek: sarx) designates the earthly condition of Jesus. The world finds life insofar as it accepts and adheres unconditionally to Jesus, the Word who became flesh (Jn 1, 14), the Son, the Saviour of the world (Jn 4, 42). Firstly, the life-giving effect of the Incarnation (“my flesh”) and of the death of Jesus (“I will give”) as source of life for the world is strongly affirmed. Only later that a derivative reading of sacramental-Eucharistic character could be made of these words.
In vv. 53-56, the same theme is deepened: “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal… my flesh is real food and my blood real drink. The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” The words “flesh” and “blood” call to mind once more the human condition of the Son of Man, and the verbs “eat” and “drink” allude again to the act of unreserved adherence to Christ who has given himself up to death for the salvation of the world.
The Johannine text is an invitation to accept in faith the gift of the self-gift of Jesus on the cross to give us life, which already creates in our historical condition a reciprocal and mysterious communion between Christ and the believer which John designates with the verb “remain” (v. 56: “The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”). Whoever believes in Jesus and lives in communion of faith and love with him, whoever feeds on his word and has opened himself to the mystery of his self-gift on the cross is introduced mysteriously into the horizon of divine friendship.
This mutual “remaining” that is produced between Christ and the believer is perhaps the most profound message of the fourth Gospel. On manifesting the communion of the disciple with the Son, the evangelist thinks of another relationship, eternal and original, that is the communion between the Father and the Son. The Father-Son relationship is the model and the source of immanence and of reciprocal communion between Jesus and the disciple: “Just as the Father who has life sent me and I have life because of the Father, so the man who feeds on me will have life because of me.” (v. 57) All life, all communion, both of the Father and of the Son, as that of the Son and the believer, has its origin in the Father who “has life”. As the Son is sent and lives because of the Father, the believer who “eats the bread”, that is Jesus, will live because of him.
The fourth Gospel describes thus the culminating reality of the eternal covenant between God and man realized in Jesus Christ. A mystery of love and communion which is actualised and experienced in an exceptional way in the mystery of the Lord’s Supper. It is undoubtedly the Eucharistic echo present in the discourse in Capernaum. Certainly the original meaning of the Gospel text should be sought in the call that John makes to believe in the Son of Man, who has lived among us and has given up himself, suffering death for the life of the world. However, all this is realized in a sacramental way in the Eucharistic communion with the body and blood of the Lord. In the Eucharistic action of “eating” the bread and “drinking” the cup of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 11, 26) that mystery of which John speaks in the Gospel is pronounced in an eminent way: “The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (Jn 6, 56) In the Eucharist, the believer not only declares and expresses his faith in the mystery of the Son of Man, who has come down from heaven and has given life to the world, but also finds the nourishment for this same faith. To “eat” sacramentally the bread of life is to enter in communion with Him who has come down from heaven and has given life to the world.