Grace, St. Thomas Aquinas taught, does not destroy nature, but perfects it. God offers us the means — his very life and love — by which our fallen natures can be healed, perfected and prepared for eternal communion with himself.
This is helpful when reading the sixth chapter of John, which says much about the relationship between material things and spiritual gifts. The Gospel of John often depicts how Jesus would begin with natural things — water, bread, wine — and then guide his listeners to an awareness of spiritual truth, but without discounting the importance of the natural thing itself. This is certainly the case with the Eucharist.
The Carmelite priest and Scripture scholar Paul-Marie de la Croix explained this in his study, “The Biblical Spirituality of John” (Alba House, 1966): “The discourse on the bread of life which follows the multiplication of the loaves was destined in Christ’s mind to prepare His listeners for the institution of the Eucharist.” He then highlights the connection between the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the even more stunning miracle of the Blessed Sacrament: “[The discourse on the bread of life] formed the bond between the miracle that they had witnessed with their eyes and this other miracle which was to furnish them with spiritual food.”
It is one thing to acknowledge that God provides food for his people. It is quite another to believe that what appears to be ordinary bread is, in fact, the flesh and blood of the Son of God. The transition would indeed be challenging. “He first sought to accustom their mouths to his bread and his wine,” wrote St. Ephrem the Syrian, “until the time would come for him to give them his blood as well as his body.” Today’s Gospel shows Jesus issuing three challenges meant to move the people beyond merely physical things to the realm of spiritual understanding.
First, he challenges them to examine their motives. “Amen, amen, I say to you,” he said, “you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” Natural food is good and essential, yes, but we need to work “for the food that endures for eternal life.” This is food we cannot produce on our own. It is given by the one sent and sealed by his Father, the Son of Man.
Secondly, when the people ask, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”, Jesus presents this simple and essential challenge: They must believe in him. “This is the work of God,” Jesus says, “that you believe in the one he sent.” Without trust in the Son of God, there is no eternal life.
The third challenge pushes even further. Those who had just witnessed the multiplication of loaves and fishes asked, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” Many of the Jews believed the coming Messiah would create manna as a sign of his true identity, as in the story of Moses. Jesus explains it was not Moses, however, who gave manna from heaven, but God. The Father is now giving “the true bread from heaven” — the bread that comes to give life to the world.
The people, naturally, ask for this supernatural bread, and are told: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Through Jesus, the Bread of Life, the gift of supernatural life — that is, grace — is now offered under the appearance of natural bread.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.