In eating the forbidden fruit, our first parents sinned and brought death into the world. By another food, the “Bread come down from Heaven,” life was restored to us. In the Eucharist, God offers Himself to us as food, giving us infinitely more than we had lost.
Gospel of Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The Jews then murmured at Him, because He said: ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me. Not that any one has seen the Father except Him who is from God; He has seen the Father.Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh’” (Jn 6:41-51).
I – God Offers Himself as Food
In our first look at this passage from St. John’s Gospel, we are immediately struck by the surprising, obstinate and illogical disbelief of Jesus’ contemporaries regarding His divinity.
Two millennia having passed, it is perhaps difficult for us to understand how anyone could doubt the divinity of Our Lord in face of such clear proofs: cures of every type of disease, liberation from diabolic possession, resurrections and other extraordinary miracles, such as the changing of water into wine or the multiplication of loaves and fishes, performed shortly before the episode narrated in this Gospel passage for the nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
How, then, could anyone contest His clear affirmations of His divinity and disdain His divine attributes? What led His contemporaries to adopt such an attitude?
When matter is preponderant in man
Human nature is composed of spirit and matter—soul and body. Proper hierarchy dictates that the spiritual part govern the material, as in the practice of virtue, aided by grace. However, when man lets himself be controlled by his inferior faculties, the disordered passions exercise a true tyranny over the soul’s nobler and more elevated faculties, and he is bound by vice. In the first case, where the spirit predominates, we encounter the spiritual man. In the second, matter is preponderant; there we have the carnal man, or as expressed in current terms, the materialist.
Let us briefly examine the second case, and attempt to outline the psychology of the carnal man to better understand the hardness of heart of Jesus’ contemporaries.
The materialist is primarily concerned with the sensible fruition of life. His intellectual horizons do not extend much beyond the concrete reality. He seems to have lost the capacity to see in three dimensions, observing everything in a single plane—that of his own immediate petty interests, bereft of the depth of eternal things. Thus, he is unable to capture the nobler realities of the supernatural order of things. The materialist is a spiritual myopic, unable to lift his gaze to the great vistas of the Faith that God so mercifully opens before him.
Distorted vision of Jesus’ contemporaries
This warped spiritual stance is what led Jesus’ contemporaries to only see, in Him, the son of Joseph the carpenter. They were incapable of admiring and venerating His exalted virtues, which surely shone from His divinity. They were spiritually calloused by the exclusive consideration of the immediate, visible and concrete realities, and could not acknowledge that the one whom they had seen grow up and live among them could be both God and man: “How does He now say: I have come down from heaven?” And this materialistic viewpoint made it impossible for them to accept God’s greatest gift to humanity: the Eucharist, the theme of this Gospel.
Visible realities are indeed reflections of invisible and supernatural realities, as St. Paul teaches: “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). But only the spiritual man can have this vision of the universe.
Being sensual and focused on concrete things, the majority of the Jewish people could not comprehend what Jesus meant when He spoke of the “Bread which came down from Heaven,” which would bring them eternal life. For them, the sole purpose of food was to sustain corporeal human life. Their intellect could not easily grasp this transcendent truth: in creating man with the need for nourishment, God had the institution of the Eucharist in mind, in order to sustain man’s supernatural life with the “Bread come down from Heaven.”
Food unites those who dine together
Nourishment, besides its immediate role in maintaining human life, also plays an important social role: it unites people. The family gathers daily around the dinner table not only to share a meal, but also their feelings, ideas, attitudes and even household concerns. Conversation flows at the table, providing parents with an ideal opportunity to educate their children.
The simple fact of sitting down together for a meal establishes a special bond between members of a family, a group of friends or a religious community. This bond transcends the particular fare being served and touches on higher values. There is something in food that fosters unity among those who share it. Family, social and religious ties are strengthened, and authentic friendships become more firmly established. The events of life, both great and small, are also celebrated about the table.
Death came from the wrongful use of food
One can surmise that in earthly paradise itself, where man’s instincts were perfectly ordered, if no sin had been committed and life had unfolded normally, the best moments of family and social camaraderie would have revolved around the act of dining.
And as God’s greatest gift to humanity would come to us under the form of food, it was also by means of a nutritional element that the Creator deigned to put our first parents to the test, in order to afterwards grant them such a lofty gift: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gn 2:16-17). This is God’s characteristic course of action; He asks us to make a small renunciation, so as to give us an infinite reward later on.
Through the act of eating the forbidden fruit, death entered the world; by the “bread come down from Heaven,” life was restored to us: “If any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever” (Jn 6:51). The first sin was committed by the abuse of one food, and eternal salvation comes to us by means of another. The Eucharist appears as God’s response to original sin, giving Adam’s children infinitely more than they had lost: God offers Himself as food for man. It is impossible to surpass the magnitude of the self-giving that the Eucharist entails. “And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51).
With this basis, we can better meditate on this Gospel passage and further our love and gratitude to the Divine Redeemer for the immense gift of the Eucharist.
II – Eucharist and Eternal Life
“The Jews then murmured at Him, because He said: ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not murmur among yourselves.’”
Jesus uttered these words in the Synagogue of Capharnaum; He had worked the prodigy of the multiplication of the loaves the day before—a prefigure of the much more portentous miracle of the Eucharist. Enchanted, the crowd had followed after Jesus until they found Him in that city. Still, when they questioned Him, Jesus admonished them for their lack of faith and their materialistic mentality: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you” (Jn 6:26-27).
In multiplying the loaves and fishes, Christ demonstrated His power over matter, thus preparing the people to believe in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, those who heard His announcement of such a great gift, hardened their hearts and were doubtful, preferring to cling to concrete and visible realities. For them, Jesus was still the “son of Joseph.” Moreover, there existed a widespread belief in Israel that the Messiah would come bringing a new manna; not even this helped to open their eyes and hearts in view of the multiplication of loaves.
Only God can lead souls toward perfection
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”
This simple phrase contains a valuable theological principle that should orient the pastoral activities of priests and the lay apostolate. Any good we may do comes from God’s initiative.
How often, in our activities, do we imagine we have accomplished great works, formulated clear thoughts, spoken in a captivating manner, or written sublime words… It all comes from God. Has our action produced results? Did souls grow in fervour, change their lives and abandon sinful ways? It was the grace of God that acted in them and made them receptive to whatever was said or done.
Our Lord uses the term “no one,” which does not allow for exceptions. “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” Jesus Himself, the God-Man, notwithstanding His omnipotence, gives us a divine example of humility, attributing to the Father’s initiative, all the good that He did. Even in our spiritual lives, any and every movement of our soul toward perfection is due to a motion of grace. It is always God who takes the initiative to attract us.
Some debate the role of free will in this supernatural attraction that God exercises, claiming that the term “attract” implies a certain violence. St. Thomas answers this objection with characteristic logic, explaining that various forms of attraction may exist, without violence or coercion. A person might attract others by artifices of the intelligence; God, too, can draw us to Himself by awe and delight in the beauty of His majesty. 1
Fr. Manuel de Tuya also highlights the role of human freedom in relation to the influence of grace: “God brings the souls to Faith in Christ: when He wills, infallibly and irresistibly, yet in such a marvellous way that they also come willingly; this aspect of freedom in man, is especially evident in verse 45.” 2
In expounding upon this verse, St. Augustine expresses the same, with ardent words and the soaring flight proper to his brilliant intelligence: “He did not lead, but draw. This violence is done to the heart, not the body. Why then do you marvel? Believe, and you come; love, and you are drawn. Do not suppose here any rough and uneasy violence; it is gentle, it is sweet; it is the very sweetness that draws you. Is not a sheep drawn, when fresh grass is shown to it in its hunger? Yet I imagine that it is not bodily driven on, but fast bound by desire. In such wise do you come too to Christ.” 3
And why is it the Father who attracts the soul and the Son who raises it up on the last day? St. John Chrysostom explains: “Not slight here is the authority of the Son, if so be that the Father leads, He raises up. He distinguishes not His working from that of the Father—how could that be? —but shows equality of power.” 4
The voice of the Father attracts us and leads us to Christ
“It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who had heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.”
As they did not believe in His works, Jesus invokes the authority of the Prophets to insinuate that one of the signs foreseen for the advent of the Messianic era was being fulfilled.
Regarding this passage, Fillion comments thus: “The text cited by Jesus, ‘they shall all be taught by God’, is taken from the Prophet Isaiah (54:13) who, in an admirable portrayal, tells of the benefits that the Lord will pour forth upon the people in the time of the Messiah. One of His greatest favours will be, precisely, that souls of goodwill will be taught and drawn directly by Him.” 5
Gomá y Tomás affirms that this “divine magisterium is the means by which God attracts men to Himself.” However, for the attraction to be effectual, it is necessary to hear His voice “as one hears the voice of the master, and to learn, that is, to pay humble assent to what one hears: it is the conjugation of the two factors of the supernatural life, grace and freedom.” 6
How will this ineffable voice make itself heard, if we cannot hear Him and speak with Him as Moses did on Mount Sinai and in the tent of meeting where God spoke to him as a friend? (cf. Ex 33:11).
St. Augustine, cited by St. Thomas in the Catena Aurea, explains more clearly how God’s teaching unfolds: “For beyond the reach of the bodily senses is this school, in which the Father is heard, and men taught to come to the Son. Here we have not to do with the carnal ear, but the ear of the heart.” 7
Accordingly—mystical theology explains—just as the body has five senses by which a person comes into contact with the external world, one can also figuratively attribute senses to the soul by which it communicates with the supernatural world.
Is it possible, then, to hear the voice of God? Certainly. He can speak with us in myriad ways, especially when we withdraw to pray, to listen to the Word or to raise our souls to Him. God speaks to us more often when we are surrounded by silence. He rarely communicates with us amid commotion and hectic rushing about, but more likely during a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, a liturgical celebration or a moment of prayer at the day’s end, when all movement ceases and the silence of the night invites us to reflection. And how eloquent silence can be! It is during these invaluable moments that the Father speaks to us and teaches us to seek out His Son.
In a speech to a delegation of recently appointed bishops, The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, highlighted the importance of silence in hearing the voice of God: “In the cities where you live and work, often chaotic and noisy, where man hurries on and loses himself, where people live as though God did not exist, may you be able to create places and opportunities for prayer, where in silence, in listening to God through lectio divina, in personal and communal prayer, man may encounter God and have a living experience of Jesus Christ who reveals the authentic Face of the Father.” 8
“Not that any one has seen the Father except Him who is from God; He has seen the Father.”
The Jewish people knew that no one could see God face to face, just as He had replied when Moses requested: “Show me Thy glory” (Ex 33: 18). Seeing God meant certain death: “You cannot see My face; for man shall not see Me and live” (Ex 33:20). But Jesus, in affirming that He had seen the Father—“He has seen the Father”—, revealed His divinity. With this declaration, Gomá y Tomás affirms, “Jesus answered the murmuring of the Jews.” 9
Font of life for soul and body
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.”
Among the Jewish people, the expression “truly, truly, I say to you” was considered a type of oath, akin to the expression “on my word of honour,” used in the English language to confer added credibility to a testimony or declaration. When Our Lord wanted to seal an affirmation with His authority, He would preface it with this expression. Maldonado transcribes the words of Cyril in interpreting this passage: “Christ knew those Jews to be rude men, not even fully believing in the prophets; therefore He introduced this oath, to oblige them to believe.” 10
Continuing his insightful commentary, Maldonado analyses the tense of the verb “have” used by Our Lord in this passage: He says has, instead of will have, because even though they do not presently have it [eternal life], they already have the right to it. The gate and road to eternal life is the faith, says Cyril. Therefore, whoever believes has already passed through the gate; if he wants, he can be saved; whoever does not believe is very far from eternal life; even if he wants to be saved, he cannot, if faith does not come first.” 11
“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This passage’s interpretation has caused great debate over the centuries. Those who ate the manna in the desert died, like all men, but those who eat the “living bread” also died physically. In what sense did Jesus employ the concepts of life and death?
Maldonado, after extensively analysing the various opinions, opts for a more all-encompassing interpretation. According to this eminent exegete, Jesus employs the concepts in a twofold sense: “this refers, at once, to the life and death of the soul and the body.” 12 The death of the body, when referring to the manna, since the Jewish people ate it and all of them died, as men do; and the life of the soul, when mentioning the “living bread which came down from heaven,” which gives eternal life to the soul. “The strength and elegance of Christ’s phrase,” 13 lie within this twofold sense. According to Maldonado, Jesus frequently used such figures of speech to “elevate the Jews, who were carnal, from material to spiritual things.” 14 However the bread Our Lord speaks of does not give life to the soul alone, but also to the body: “I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54).
“When [the Body of Christ] gives life to the soul, that is, grace, it imparts to the body a surety and beginning, as it were, of the beatitude which we call eternal life. The beatitude of the soul overflows into the body, just as the merits of the soul reflect in the body (Augustine). […] The Body of Christ, which, through the hypostatic union with the Divinity has infinite and divine life within It, also begets this in us, upon physical contact, when we truly receive It in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It plants in our bodies a seed of immortality which will later blossom in the resurrection, very different from that of the bodies of the damned.” 15
St. Irenaeus affirms that, just as the grain of wheat has a germinative strength by which, when it is sown in the earth, it decomposes and reproduces, so also, the Body of Christ possesses a productive efficacy which is transmitted to our bodies. Even decomposed and reduced to dust, they will rise up and be reborn. 16 It is thus, Maldonado concludes, that the “sacramental Body of Christ, which we receive, makes our mortal body immortal.” 17
Food that transmits live-giving virtue
Let us turn to the theological knowledge and talent of Gueránger to better explain the marvellous and supernatural effects of the Eucharist upon those who receive It worthily. As food serves to increase and maintain life, he explains, the Word of God became “our living and life-giving Food, which has come down from heaven; partaking of the life eternal which He has in His Father’s bosom, the Flesh of the Word communicates this same life to them that eat It. That, (as St. Cyril of Alexandria observes) which, of its own nature, is corruptible, cannot be brought to life in any other way, than by its corporal union with the body of Him who is life by nature: now, just as two pieces of wax melted together by the fire make but one, so are we and Christ made one by our partaking of His Body and Blood. […] For, says the Apostle, as a little leaven makes the whole paste to be like itself, so, likewise, that Body, which God had willed should be put to death, when it is within ours, transmutes and transforms it wholly to Itself. Now the only way whereby a substance may be thus got into the body, is by being taken as food and drink. This is the means, proper to its nature, by which our body acquires life-giving virtue.” 18
III – The Eucharistic Woman
Even though this Gospel does not mention Mary, Mother of Jesus, we know from theology and the Church’s Magisterium that she was the first human creature to benefit from this promise of Our Lord: “I will raise him up.” Mary Most Holy was assumed into Heaven, body and soul.
Mary ardently desired the Eucharist
Not only did she never doubt in the Eucharist—as so many of her contemporaries did—but she ardently longed for the day when Our Lord would fulfil the promise to give His Flesh as food and His Blood as drink. So we can surmise how much joy Jesus’ discourse in the Synagogue of Capharnaum must have given her, and how she recalled the ineffable mystical conviviality which she had with the Incarnate Word during the nine months He spent in her maternal enclosure.
In addition, Jourdain affirms: “It could be said, without fear of erring, that it was principally for His most holy and blessed Mother that Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He undoubtedly instituted It for the entire Church, but, after Jesus, Mary is the main part of the Church.” 19 And just as she consented that her Son offer Himself as a victim to the Father, for the redemption of mankind, in the same way she “gave her assent to the act by which her Divine Son […] gave Himself to us as victim, food and companion in this life of exile,” 20 in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
The Church is called to imitate her
“Mary is a ‘woman of the Eucharist’ in her whole life” — affirms the Servant of God John Paul II in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia. Thus, “the Church, which looks to Mary as a model, is also called to imitate her in her relationship with this most holy mystery.” 21
The Pontiff adds: “In a certain sense Mary lived her Eucharistic faith even before the institution of the Eucharist, by the very fact that she offered her virginal womb for the Incarnation of God’s Word. […] And is not the enraptured gaze of Mary as she contemplated the face of the newborn Christ and cradled him in her arms that unparalleled model of love which should inspire us every time we receive Eucharistic communion?” 22
He further explains that Mary lived the “sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist,” not only at Calvary, but throughout her entire existence at Christ’s side. “In her daily preparation for Calvary, Mary experienced a kind of ‘anticipated Eucharist’ – one might say a ‘spiritual communion’ – of desire and of oblation, which would culminate in her union with her Son in His passion, and then find expression after Easter by her partaking in the Eucharist which the Apostles celebrated as the memorial of that passion.” 23
Thus, living the memorial of Christ’s death in the Eucharist implies continually receiving Mary as Mother. “It also means taking on a commitment to be conformed to Christ, putting ourselves at the school of his Mother and allowing her to accompany us. Mary is present, with the Church and as the Mother of the Church, at each of our celebrations of the Eucharist. If the Church and the Eucharist are inseparably united, the same ought to be said of Mary and the Eucharist.” 24
May these beautiful and profound reflections, so Eucharistic and Marian, help us to be more profoundly convinced of the magnificence of God’s immense gift to humanity, and Mary’s role in the Eucharistic devotion of the all the faithful, both laity and priests. ◊