What does Jesus mean by ‘I am the bread of life’?

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Msgr. Charles PopeQuestion: We Catholics believe we eat the body of Christ (transubstantiation), not bread, unlike Lutherans, who believe they eat both (consubstantiation). But, Jesus says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life.” That’s fodder for the other side. No play on words intended.

Name, location withheld

Answer: I’m not sure why you conclude that. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” it is as if to say, “the bread of life is actually me.” He also says, “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). Recall, too, the context of these words. Jesus had worked a miracle of multiplying the loaves and fishes. It was a kind of free meal for 20,000. And now, some of them are pursuing Jesus and want more free bread. After some back and forth with them Jesus says, as if in frustration, “I AM the bread!” He then warns them against pining for food that perishes (ordinary bread) and to desire the true and living bread he wants to give them — namely, his very self.

Of course, as Catholics, we do teach that, although the full substance of bread and wine pass over to become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, we acknowledge that the species of bread and wine remain. The word “species” is from the Latin specio, meaning “to look at, or see.” Thus the Eucharist still appears to be ordinary bread and wine and is sometimes referred to by those terms. For example, St. Paul writes: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). And, so, though he uses bread to indicate the species, he is clearly saying that it is actually a partaking or communion (the Greek is koinónia) in the body of Christ.

The Real Presence

Question: I recall a question you were asked some time ago where you said we are as much eating the flesh and blood of Jesus as partaking in the glorified body of Jesus. Could you explain this a bit more?

Christopher Welch, Fairhope, Alabama

Answer: We are eating the body and blood of Christ, but the point was that we ought not to reduce this understanding of the eating of a piece of flesh as when we eat steak or liver. First of all, Christ is living, not dead. And his humanity is glorified.

To say that we receive the glorified body of Christ indicates a number of things. First, as noted, we are receiving the Risen Christ. The Eucharist is not merely a piece of dead flesh or a part of Christ; we receive the whole Christ, living and risen: body, blood, soul and divinity.

Second, it does not pertain to a natural body to be present everywhere. Prior to his resurrection, Christ’s natural body — even though hypostatically united to his divine person — did not, of its nature, possess the ability to be everywhere. But Christ in the Eucharist is present everywhere and can do that not only through the power of his divinity but also in his glorified humanity.

Finally, his glorified humanity means he can be present fully in every part of the host or drop of the precious blood. The use of the term “corporeal” refers to the fact that his body and blood are really and truly present in the blessed sacrament. But the term corporeal (from the Latin word corpus, meaning “body”) tends to understate that he is also present with his soul and divinity in the Eucharist. Because of this and his glorified humanity, his bodily presence is more perfectly present so that even in the smallest visible fragment of the host, the whole Christ is present. Without this understanding, some might be tempted to wonder what part of the host contained his eyes or arms, etc., and why the host doesn’t weigh 190 pounds or so. But as it is, his bodily presence in the host is far more glorious than that understanding implies.

I hope this helps, but we do well to recall that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is far more glorious and mysterious than mere words can fully express.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.