Can you imagine being there 2,000 ago, near the Sea of Galilee, as Jesus taught, performed miracles and confronted a growing combination of wariness, excitement, fear, and eagerness?
The man standing before you had recently — miraculously! — fed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes. He has spoken of God as his Father, and he claims a unique relationship with God. It seems as if he is hinting that he is divine as well. He is frightening and fascinating; his discourses are unsettling and captivating.
But isn’t he simply Jesus, the son of Joseph? You know his father and mother. You even saw this man, Jesus, when he was an ordinary-looking kid. Yet now he is making statements such as, “I have come down from heaven”! Perplexed, you and several others huddle together and argue about this man Jesus and his claims.
Jesuit scholar Donatien Mollat, wrote that the apostle John, in the sixth chapter of his Gospel, “sets out all the essentials of his Eucharistic doctrine.” This teaching about the sacrament “stands as a living doctrine at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and the world, between light and darkness.” The first half of the chapter sets the stage for the teachings of Jesus about the Eucharist. Today’s reading marks a decisive step into the sacramental realm. It also apparently marks a change in audience, for up to verse 41 there are references to “a multitude” (Jn 6:2), and “the people” (Jn 6:10,14,22, etc.).
While confused and mystified, the multitudes were not antagonistic, but curious and eager to know more. But now the religious leaders are present. These men, St. Augustine noted,“were far from being fit for that heavenly bread” described by Jesus, because they “did not know how to hunger for it.” Like the Hebrews in the desert during the Exodus, they murmured and complained against God (Ex 15:24;16:2,7-12;17:2-3). Jesus, rather than trying to explain his supernatural birth, referred to his divine mission and authority: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day.” This is a direct promise of life after death.
Jesus is also shown to be the personification of divine Wisdom, associated in the Wisdom literature with food and wine that nourishes, sustains and gives life (Prv 9:1-6). Elijah, in today’s first reading, was given food and drink in the desert as he despaired for his life. “Get up and eat,” God told him, “else the journey will be too long for you.” Jesus, who is perfect wisdom, offers food and drink to those wandering in the desert of life. “Amen, amen I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:47-48).
Wisdom is not just a spiritual quality or an abstract truth, but is now incarnate. Those who believe in Jesus are able, St. John Chrysostom said, “to touch, and eat him, and fix their teeth in his flesh and to embrace him and satisfy all their love.” The prophet Elijah, alone in the desert, was met by the living God, who gave bread and water. Mankind, separated from God on the desert of the world, are joined by the God-man, who invites us to join ourselves to him through the sacraments.
Jesus emphasized his identity again: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” He then moved from the “who” to the “what,” saying “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” And, next, he reveals the shocking “how.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.