Monday, August 22, 2005

The Gospel of John, Chapter 6

At my weekly holy hour, I've lately been reading Bishop Fulton Sheen's book, Life of Christ. The good Bishop's preaching skills are phenomenal.

Here's an extended passage I read today, where he gave the best explanation I've seen yet on the meaning of John chapter 6. To refresh your memory, this is where Christ multiplied the 5 loaves and 2 fishes to feed the crowd, and the next day the crowd had another encounter with Him. Here's Bishop Sheen's reflection on that second day.
They wanted some further proof that the Father had authorized Him; He gave bread, yes, but it was not stupendous enough. After all, had not Moses given bread from heaven? Their argument was: what proof had they that He was greater than Moses? Thus, they minimized the miracle of the day before, by comparing Him to Moses, and the bread He gave to the manna of the desert. Our Lord had fed the multitude only once, and Moses had fed them for forty years. In the desert the people always called bread "manna," meaning "What is it?" But on one occasion, when they despised the manna, they had called it "light bread." So they now made light of this gift. Our Lord took up the challenge; He said that the manna that they had received from Moses was not Heavenly Bread, nor had it come from heaven; furthermore, it nourished only one nation for a brief space of time. More important still, it was not Moses who gave the manna; it was His Father; finally, the Bread which He would give would nourish unto life everlasting. When He told them that the true Bread came down from heave, they asked:
Give us this bread now and always.

He answered:
I am the bread of life. John 6:35

This was the third time that Our Blessed Lord used an instance from the Old Testament to symbolize Himself. The first was when He likened Himself to the ladder that Jacob saw, thus revealing Himself as a Mediator between heaven and earth. In His discourse with Nicodemus, He compared Himself to the brazen serpent, a healer of the sin-stricken and poisoned world. Now He referred to the manna of the desert, and claimed that He was the true Bread of which the manna had been only the prefigurement. He Who would say:

I am the light of the world. John 8:12
I am the door of the sheepfold. John 10:7-9
I am the good shepherd. John 10:11-14
I am the resurrection and I am life. John 11:25
I am the real vine. John 11:25

now called himself three times:

I am the bread of life. John 6:35,41,48,51

Once again, He makes the shadow of the Cross appear. Bread must be broken; and He Who had come from God must be a sacrificial Victim that men might truly feed on Him. Hence, it would be a Bread that would result from the voluntary offering of His own flesh to rescue the world from the slavery of sin unto the newness of life.

How can this man give us his flesh to eat? they said. Jesus replied, In truth, in very truth I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you can have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life. John 6:52-54

He not only pictured Himself as One Who had come down from heaven but as One Who had come down to give Himself, or to die. It would only be in the slain Christ that they would come to understand the glory of a Bread that nourishes unto eternity. He was here referring to His death; for the word "giving" expressed the sacrificial act. The Flesh and Blood of the Incarnate Son of God, which would be severed in death, would become the source of everlasting life. When He said, "My Flesh," He meant His human nature, as "The Word became Flesh" meant that God the Word or the Son assumed to Himself a human nature. But it was only because that human nature would be linked to a Divine Personality for all eternity that He could give eternal life to those who received it. And when He said that He would give that for the life of the world, the Greek word used meant "all mankind."

His words became more poignant because this was the season of the Passover. Though the Jews looked on blood in an awesome manner, they were leading their lambs at that time to Jerusalem, where blood would be sprinkled to the four directions of the earth. The strangeness of the utterance about giving His Body and Blood diminished against the background of the Passover; He meant that the shadow of the animal lamb was passing, and that its place was being taken by the true Lamb of God. As they had communion with the flesh and blood of the Paschal Lamb, so they would now have communion with the Flesh and Blood of the true Lamb of God. He, Who was born in Bethlehem, the "House of Bread" and was laid in a manger, a place of food for lower animals, would now be to men, so inferior to Him, their Break of Life. Everything in nature has to have communion in order to life; and through it what is lower is transformed into what is higher: chemical into plants, plants into animals, animals into man. And man? Should he not be elevated through communion with Him Who "came down" from heaven to make man a partaker of the Divine nature? As a Mediator between God and man, He said that, as He lived by the Father, so they would live by Him:

As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me shall live because of me. John 6:58

How carnal was the eating of the manna, and how spiritual was the eating of the flesh of Christ! It was a far more intimate living by Him than a baby's living by the nourishment supplied by the mother. Every mother to every child at her breast can say, "Eat, this is my body; this is my blood." But actually the comparison ends there; for in the mother-child relationship, both are on the same level. In the Christ-human relationship, the difference is that of God and man, heaven and earth. Furthermore, no mother ever has to die and take on a more glorious existence in her human nature before she can be the nourishment of her offspring. But Our Lord said that He would to "give" His life, before He would be the Bread of Life to believers. The plants which nourish animals do not live on another planet; the animals which nourish man do not live in another world. If Christ then was to be the "Life of the World," He must be tabernacled among men as Emmanuel or "God with us," supplying a life for the soul as earthly bread is the life of the body.

But the mind of His hearers rose no higher than the physical, as they asked:

How can this man give us his flesh to eat? John 6:52

It was madness for any man to offer his flesh to eat. But they were not left long in the dark as Our Lord corrected them, saying that not a mere man, but "the Son of Man" would give it. As usual, that title referred to the expiatory sacrifice He would offer. Not the dead Christ would believers feed upon, but the Glorified Christ in Heaven Who died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. The mere eating of the flesh and blood of a man would profit nothing; but the glorified Flesh and Blood of the Son of Man would profit unto life everlasting. As man died spiritually by physically eating in the Garden of Eden, so he would live again spiritually through eating the fruit of the Tree of Life.

Christ's words were too literal, and He cleared up too many false interpretations, for any of His hearers to claim that the Eucharist (or Body and Blood He would give) was a mere type or symbol, or that its effects depended upon the subjective dispositions of the receiver. It was Our Lord's method whenever anyone misunderstood what He said to correct the misunderstanding, as He did when Nicodemus thought "born again" meant re-ntering his mother's womb. But, whenever anyone correctly understood what He said, but found fault with it, He repeated what He said. And in this discourse, Our Lord repeated five times what He had said about His Body and Blood. The full meaning of these words did not become evident until the night before He died. In His last will and testament, He left that which on dying no other man has ever been able to leave, namely, His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, for the life of the world.


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