Opening the Word: Bread of life discourse: Parts 4 and 5

4 mins read
Last Supper
Leonardo DaVinci/Public domain

Timothy P O'MalleyLast weekend, the Church celebrated the feast of the Assumption. She who bore the Word made flesh in her womb is now crowned as queen of heaven.

This solemnity of Our Lady caused a brief interruption of our continuous reading of John 6. Rather than leave us deprived of the remainder of the bread of life discourse, famished because we did not feast upon every verse of John 6, the kind editors at Our Sunday Visitor have allowed a longer column this week.

Let us resume our reading of the bread of life discourse with John 6:52.

Jesus has just told the crowds that he is to give his flesh for the life of the world.

August 22 – Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jos 24:1-2, 15-17, 18
Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
Eph 5:21-32
Jn 6:60-69

His Jewish interlocutors now quarrel among themselves. What human being can give his own flesh for eating? Would he not die?

Jesus does not soften his claim. He doubles down. There will be no eternal life for you — no life to the full if you do not dine upon the flesh of the Son of Man.

Eating his flesh and drinking his blood are necessary if we are to experience the resurrection from the dead. We Catholics forget this doctrine too often. We think about heaven as some distant land above us, as an escape from the here and now.

But the promise of Our Lord in the Gospels is that all creation will be transformed, starting with our bodies. You heard Our Lord right. When we eat his flesh and blood, the bread of life, we start living as those whose flesh and blood will be resurrected from the dead.

John’s Gospel is telling us something essential. The Eucharist is the beginning of new life in Christ. It’s not just an obligation. It’s the way that our bodies experience eternal life, the way that we become who God always intended us to be.

Those who reside with God, forever and ever. Those with voices and bodies to give praise eternally.

Read more on the Bread of Life discourse series here.

How, you might ask?

The scandal that people often point to in the Gospel is the increasing intensity of the verbs for eating used by Jesus. In the original Greek, the first verbs are more gentle. By the end, Jesus seems to be saying that unless we munch upon the flesh and blood of Jesus, gnaw upon him, we will not have life forever.

That’s part of the scandal. But it’s not everything.

The real scandal is what Jesus says to the increasingly hostile crowds. Remember that they came to him for another sign. They wanted to be wowed. And now, they can’t believe what they’re hearing.

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my flesh 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” (Jn 6:56-57).

The scandal of Jesus’ words once again — as it often is in the Gospel of John — is about his identity.

He is the bread of life. Unless you munch upon his flesh, really chew upon it, almost like a piece of steak, you won’t have eternal life. You won’t remain in Christ.

We will hear more about this remaining in the later chapters of John. To remain in Jesus is to be united to him in the vine of the Church. It is to love him. To love one another.

But the way toward this love, this total union, is to eat his flesh and blood. It is to participate in the Eucharist.

There is more. We have that life because, through the Eucharist, we participate in the same relationship that Jesus has with the Father through the Eucharist. He is the Son, who has life only from the Father. “Begotten and not made, consubstantial with the Father.”

He is God from God, light from light.

His whole being is united to the Father. And now we who munch upon his flesh and blood in the Blessed Sacrament share in that life. We have life from the Son, and therefore now have life from the Father.

We are changed, here and now.

This is why we don’t approach the Blessed Sacrament as just a quaint ritual practice. We feast upon the body and blood of Our Lord, united with him, and therefore united with the triune God.

We participate in his divine life, becoming here and now, what God always wanted for us.

Those who share in his life.

This is the bread that has come down from heaven. The bread of truth, of a union so impossibly intimate, we could never have dreamed it up. We wouldn’t have.

Many of the disciples couldn’t accept it. This was the bridge too far.

Who could accept it?

Once again, Jesus does not back down. He is not the backing down sort.

You think this is wondrous? What if you saw me, the one standing before you, ascending to the Father? I am the Word made flesh, the splendor of the Father, Jesus reminds the reader of John’s Gospel. Could you handle beholding me as the Word of the Father, glorious beyond all glory?

Indeed, who could believe this? The Gospel of John asks this question of us too. Through our efforts, we cannot. Through our insufficient logic, it is impossible. Only the Spirit can allow us to believe.

Jesus is speaking to us today. Perhaps we have forgotten the scandalous claim that Jesus makes in John. He is the Word made flesh. He has given his flesh for the life of the world. If we eat this flesh and blood, we will live forever and ever.

We will love as those made for love unto the end. We will be united with the triune God. Our life, here and now, will be changed forever.

Who could believe this? Only those who receive a gift beyond all gifts, the Spirit of the Father and the Son who brings us into divine life.

Let’s just admit it, Church. The Eucharist is hard. It’s hard not because the doctrines of Real Presence and transubstantiation are all that complicated. It’s hard because we are promised something so remarkable, so beautiful, so splendid, we can’t believe it on our own.

We need the Spirit of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ to teach us this. The whisper of a love beyond all telling, in our hearts and in our minds. We need to sit before the Blessed Sacrament, listening anew to what there is to learn.

Many found Jesus’ teaching too difficult. They left. Jesus asks the Twelve if it’s too much for them.

Peter says it all. No. Where would we go? You have the words. You have the words of eternal life.

Church, listen to Peter. This is the task ahead of us. Not to make the Eucharist something more ponderous than it needs to be. But to give ourselves over to a relationship with Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

To eat the bread of life.

Let us eat this bread of life, becoming in the process what God always intended for us.


Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

Timothy P. O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.