For the past few weeks we have digressed from the gospel of Saint Mark to read the sixth chapter of the gospel of Saint John. This gospel is considered to have been the last to be written down in about 60 A.D. The author gives no account of the Last Supper or the Eucharist as it was celebrated then because it had probably been well established and needed no explanation. What he does give is a deep and thoughtful account of what Jesus taught about the Eucharist.
In typical style, John has Jesus make a statement that is challenging. His hearers disagree and Jesus is then given the chance to amplify what he is teaching and what he means precisely. Jesus claim is that he is the bread that has come down from heaven. His hearers are mindful of the manna God provided for his people in the desert in the Exodus story. Jesus appears to be making two extraordinary claims now. He is saying that he has come down from heaven and that he has the power to offer eternal life in and through the bread that he is offering. More shockingly for his hearers he describes this bread as his flesh, for the life of the world. The Hebrew people were and are very conscious of the symbolic value of flesh and blood, the stuff of life and to this day the pious will not eat meat that has not had the blood, the source of life drained from it.
Jesus rebuts their objections and goes on to claim that those who eat his flesh and blood live in him and he in them. He develops the idea of communion, a union with him and with each other as the word suggests in its literal meaning. This togetherness with him and with each other is only a shadow, a foretaste of the perfect togetherness that awaits us in the communion of saints or the eternal and perfect togetherness of the Trinity. Christ promises to remain with us, to be in us and we in him in the fragment, the morsel of bread that is the Eucharist.
Christ also claims that he has been sent by the Father, the living Father and that he draws life from his communion with the Father and that we can also draw life from him, Jesus, by eating his body and drinking his blood in the Eucharist. This, he teaches, is unlike the bread that the ancestors ate, the manna that kept life in the bodies of those who were making their way through the unfriendly desert on their way to the Promised Land. They are dead, he points out. The claim he now makes is that anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.
The sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel is worth reading through especially if we want to be clear on what we believe about the Eucharist. We can discover perhaps what the late Pope spoke about when he talked about the ‘amazement’ that we ought to have in the face of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Jesus didn’t of course get an easy hearing. Next week we hear of the reaction of his audience to this teaching. We have already heard that they complained. Next week at the end of this chapter we hear of how many people walked away from Jesus as he tried to explain this teaching. He spoke to his disciples asking them if they too would walk away. It was, of course, impulsive Peter who stepped in with a reply. ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life’.