Two elderly gentlemen from a retirement center were sitting on a bench when one turns to the other and says: “Jim, I’m 83 years old now, and I’m just full of aches and pains. I know you are about my age. How do you feel?” Jim says, “I feel just like a newborn baby.” “Really? Like a newborn baby?” asked his surprised friend. “Yeah! No hair, no teeth, and I think I just wet my pants.”
Nowadays, we are very conscious of what we eat. We try our best to eat only the food that is healthy and nutritious. This is because we want to avoid illness, and prolong our life. We all want to remain young. We even wish for a food that will make us live forever. But is this possible?
This Sunday, the third in the series of five Sundays, Jesus is telling us that he is not just giving us material food, like the manna in the desert and the bread that he multiplied. Rather, he says that he is the bread himself: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51). Is it possible to live forever? In the sacrament of the Eucharist, yes, it is possible: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” And this bread is the body of Jesus himself: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
So, this Sunday, in the third part of his discourse, Jesus told his followers directly: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died” (John 6:48). He now claimed that he is the new manna, the bread that came down from heaven that can give eternal life.
As expected, this statement by Jesus was shocking to his listeners. So they murmured and complained. This is similar with the grumblings and murmurs of protest by the Israelites against Moses in the desert. They just could not comprehend how Jesus, the son of a carpenter, could claim that he came down from heaven. And to top it all, how can he say that his own flesh is the bread of life? They were horrified at the thought of eating the flesh of another human being. They simply could not grasp the meaning of what Jesus was saying. This is because they have become so materialistic that their hearts and minds cannot go beyond the material and the physical, but Jesus did not change his statement, did not take it back! he meant what he have said!
In short, this statement by Jesus, no matter how shocking it is to most of his listeners, was intended to be this way, it was an invitation to examine one’s faith in him. Many disciples left at that time after this statement, but Jesus did not say:” Please stay I did not mean it, I meant it as a symbol of my body and blood. For those who have faith in Jesus, he is the Bread of Life who came down from heaven. But for those who do not believe in him, Jesus was just the “son of the carpenter.”
In our time, there are people who insist on the idea of the Eucharist only as a community meal, as symbol of Christ Body. Pope Benedict XVI objects to this kind of understanding. In his book “The Feast of Faith” he said: “It is not enough to describe the Eucharist as the community meal. It cost the Lord his life, and only at this price can we enjoy the gift of the Resurrection” (p. 150). The Eucharist is more than just a meal, just a symbol. It is the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary being made present to us in the here and now. It is his body and blood that we partake.
In today’s Gospel, the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus comes to the point of the previous events namely; the multiplication of the loaves and His proclamation of Himself as the bread of life. Jesus is the living bread. He satisfies our bodies and our souls. The Father sent Him in order to save us from the hunger of our souls.
The plan of God was for Jesus to become man, proclaim the Good News, die, and resurrect. Out of the death of Jesus we gain eternal life. Jesus, who died and came back to life, is the living bread, our living bread.
Bread was vital to the Jews. While there were other sources of nourishment, bread remained the most important and necessary. Fathers must see to it that there is always bread for the family. It is in this sense that Jesus presents Himself. The use of bread makes possible a grasping of Jesus’ teaching. In the coming Sundays, it will become complicated. It was hard for the Jews to accept Him as the Messiah and a bread they can eat.
This translates, in real life, when we hope, endure, sacrifice, and persevere through all the challenges, tribulations, pains, and deaths, we know life is never without them. In fact, these are constitutive of life. Precisely, Jesus came and went through the same which culminated in His dying on the cross. He was showing us that He rules and has authority on life which does not end in death but in life eternal. Being the living bread, He gives us Himself as the answer to the question and mystery which is life.
I wish to remind you of that famous story of a churchgoer who wrote to an editor of a newspaper saying, he has been going to church in the last 30 years and heard thousands of sermons and cannot even remember all of them. He thought there was no need to continue to go to Church and no need to listen to any more sermons. Later on, someone replied him saying, he’s been married for over thirty years and his wife since then cooked so many dishes and he cannot even remember all the different kinds of food she served. He said all the different kinds of food he ate gave him energy to carry out his everyday task. In the same way, he says, he’s been going to church and has been receiving spiritual nourishment through the word of God and by receiving Holy Communion.
The prophet Elijah really needed nourishment in the form of encouragement and support after he had a battle with the prophets of Baal. His life was in danger as Jezebel the wife of King Ahab sought to kill him. Elijah felt so lonely and abandoned and “He asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.” He lay down to sleep waiting for death to carry him away. God was watching him with a loving gaze and he sent an angel with baked bread and a jar of water for Elijah. The Angel said to Elijah, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.” After eating that bread and drinking the water, he had the strength to walk for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.
It is therefore not surprising that before Jesus departed from this world, he deemed it necessary to give his followers a kind of food different from the normal food on our menu. He offered himself, in the form of bread to his disciples. He emphatically states: I am the bread of life…the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die spiritually or die in perpetual frustration or despair. Before his departure from the world, he organized a special dinner for his disciples and there he served them with bread, which he sanctified and called his body and with wine which he consecrated and called his blood. He requested they continue to eat the body and drink the blood to remember he is there with them always.
At this Eucharist, we receive the bread of eternal life. This is more than sustenance for survival. This is more than symbol and a community meal. It is a share in God’s Body and Blood and Divinity. It is a share even now in love’s victory. It is a share in Life Eternal!