The Eucharist, wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “is the sacrament of love; it signifies love, it produces love. The Eucharist is the consummation of the whole spiritual life.” The opening lines of Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (“The Sacrament of Charity”) states, “The sacrament of charity, the holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God’s infinite love for every man and woman.” And the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the blessed sacrament as “a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity … ” (No. 1323).
This is good to keep in mind because there is so much tension, confusion and confrontation described in John 6. It is understandable that we might not see the forest for the trees; we may — as I have sometimes done — focus so intently on parsing and explaining and defending the particulars of this profoundly Eucharistic text that we might overlook this question, “Why?” Why does Jesus describe himself as the “living bread that came down from heaven”? Why does he insist on saying that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you”?
In answering such questions, we need to glance back at the prologue of the fourth Gospel (Jn 1:1-18), which says in no uncertain terms that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Son and Word of God, who is creator, light and life. Those who accept him are given the power “to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). The Son, the second person of the Trinity, willingly became man so that men might become sons of God (Catechism, No. 460). The material realm, rather than being evil and contrary to spiritual wholeness, is a good thing, created by God and used as a channel for his grace and divine life.
As a young Protestant, I had memorized John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son … ” I was taught that a profession of faith was all that was necessary to procure salvation. I later realized this was incomplete, just as it would be incomplete to profess marriage vows and then not express my love through a lifetime of actions. True love is covenantal, which means it is self-giving, intimate, personal and ratified through actions.
Many of those who heard the startling words of Jesus were dismayed, even angered, by them, as we will hear about next Sunday. Part of their reaction, I think, was due to their failure to accept that the natural and the supernatural are able to be united perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. The entire Gnostic movement was based on a loathing of the material world. But God does not reject what he has created, nor dismiss what he loves. Rather, he offers an invitation to abundant and everlasting life, as Jesus explained: “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.”
Divine love demands great faith, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter strong unbelief. It also provides great hope, so we also witness profound despair. It desires and brings deep unity and intimacy, so we see, sadly, division and isolation. Why? Because love never coerces; it is freely given and it can be freely rejected. In receiving the sacrament of love, we are given everything we could ever desire by the one who desires everything we can give.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.