Many people who followed Jesus considered Him to be a very powerful healer and inspiring teacher. They were amazed as His gentle curing touch with the sick (Jn 6:2). They wanted to hear His words because they realized that if they lived according to His teachings, their lives would be very much improved.
Today’s Gospel, John 6:51-58, takes place on the day after Jesus fed a large crowd on the mountain (Jn 6:1-15). No one was quite sure how He did this since everyone had more than they could eat and He began with only five barley loaves and two fish. It was clear, they concluded, “This is truly the prophet, the one who is to come into the world” (Jn 6:15)
Amazingly, He was able to slip away from them. The next morning, they realized that He had crossed the sea and had gone to on the opposite shore. When they found Him, He assured them that His teaching was more important than the physical bread He had given them. He declared, “I am the bread of life” and asserted that if they ate this bread, they would never be hungry or thirsty again (Jn 6:35).
His words were strong, but His listeners considered that He was trying to give added emphasis to His message. However, He went further and announced, “I came down from heaven” (Jn 6:38). Did He actually mean that? He proceeded to speak of Himself as “the Son” in relation to God as “My Father”: “This is the will of My Father that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day” (Jn 6:40).
What was He saying? They might accept that His teaching was spiritual bread that God had sent from heaven? But this was much more. He Himself was the bread of life that had come down from heaven and could give life.
His words were clear: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51). He was announcing, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, “I can give life.” Bread strengthens life but He was declaring that He can give life, even eternal life.
Some were still trying to interpret His words in a spiritual or metaphorical sense, but He became very specific: “The bread I will give is My flesh, for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). For anyone who thought that His description of Himself as “the Son” of the Father was an indication of His unique devotion to the Father, He was now announcing that He was so intimately united with the Father that His flesh itself was life-giving.
Thomas Aquinas explains that Jesus’ being the living bread doesn’t apply only to His being the eternal Word or to His human soul: “… even His flesh is life-giving, for it is an instrument of His divinity. Thus, since an instrument acts by virtue of the agent, then just as the divinity of Christ is life-giving, so too His flesh gives life because of the Word to which it is united.” Jesus healed by His human touch, as the instrument of His divinity.
Scripture scholars generally agree that the beginning of Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse, Jn. 6:35-50, refers to Jesus’ teaching as life-giving. Raymond Brown, S.S. in his commentary, The Gospel According to John I-XII, alerts us that the Eucharistic theme is present even in the opening words but becomes stronger as the passage proceeds, “there is a secondary, Eucharistic reference in 35-50, and this reference will become primary in 51-58” (p. 274).
Thomas acknowledges that the first part of Jesus’ words could be applied to His teaching but now He means “eating” His flesh, “… but what He is saying here pertains to the sharing in His body, that is, to the sacrament of the Eucharist.”
Thomas considers the possibility that Jesus only intended “eating His body” as a parable or a metaphor. Jesus affirmed, “For my flesh truly is food” (Jn 6:55). He recalls Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “Jesus took bread, He blessed it and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying: ‘Take and eat it, this is My body’“(Mt 26:26). Thomas comments: “Just as Christ gave His body to death by His own will, so it is by His own power that He gives Himself as food.”
Jesus asserts, “The bread which I will give is My flesh” (Jn 6:51). Jesus gives the bread, even though the priest is given the power to consecrate “in the person of Christ.” In the other sacraments, the priest uses his own words or those of the Church but, in the Eucharist, the priest speaks Jesus’ own words.
Thomas is struck by the realism of Jesus words: “Jesus does not say, ‘This signifies my flesh,’ but it is My flesh, for in reality that which is taken is truly the body of Christ.”
Thomas wonders why Jesus specifies that the sacrament is His “flesh” when the whole Christ is in this “mystical sacrament.” Are not His divinity and His human soul also present?
Thomas grants that it might be easier to accept the presence of Jesus’ soul and divinity than His flesh yet the Eucharist, in a special way, is a commemoration of Jesus’ Passion “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:26). Thomas affirms that the Passion of Christ relates to His weakness, “He was crucified through weakness” (2 Cor 13:4). According to Thomas, the “flesh” represents “the weakness through which He died.”
Thomas asserts that the “usefulness of this sacrament,” is “great and universal.” It is great because “It produces spiritual life within us now, and will later produce eternal life.”
Christ is present in the sacrament: “Since this is the sacrament of our Lord’s passion, it contains in itself the Christ who suffered.” The sacrament transmits the effects of Jesus’ Passion: “Whatever is an effect of our Lord’s passion is also an effect of this sacrament. For this sacrament is nothing other than the application of our Lord’s passion to us.”
Thomas affirms that Christ gave us this sacrament of His presence because He would no longer be physically present with us. The sacrament is useful because it destroys death and restores life: “The destruction of death, which Christ accomplished by His death, and the restoration of life, which He accomplished by His resurrection, are effects of this sacrament.”
Thomas asserts that this sacrament is universally useful because it not only gives life to one person but to the whole world: “… for this the death of Christ is fully sufficient. ‘He is the offering for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the entire world’” (1 Jn 2:2).
While other sacraments have effects for individuals, with the Eucharist “the effect is universal” because it affects not just the priests, but those for whom he prays, as well as the entire Church, living and dead. This is so because: “It contains the universal cause of all the sacraments, Christ.”
Jesus’ listeners refused to accept His words because they thought He wanted them to literally eat Him. The Gospel tells us that they argued among themselves. Augustine recognizes the contrast between those who accept Jesus and those who argue among themselves: the Eucharist is “the food of unity, which makes into one those who are nourished on it”
Jesus declares, “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). Thomas reflects that just as material bread is necessary for bodily life, “so spiritual food is necessary for the spiritual life to such an extent that without it the spiritual life cannot be sustained: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God’” (Dt 8:3).
Thomas reminds us that both the Eucharist and the Church are described as His body. Thomas points out, “the body of Christ is the Church, which arises out of many believers forming a bodily unity: “We are one body” (Rom 12:5). According to Thomas, the Eucharist is the “sacrament of the body of Christ” because bread is formed from many grains, just as the Church is formed of many members.
Jesus’ words may be taken in a “spiritual” way or in a “sacramental” way. Thomas asserts: “For that person eats the flesh of Christ and drinks his blood in a spiritual way who shares in the unity of the Church; and this is accomplished by the love of charity: ‘You are one body, in Christ’” (Rom 12:5).
One who is not united is without life: “One who does not eat in this way is outside the Church, and consequently, without the love of charity. Accordingly, such a one does not have life in himself: ‘He who does not love, remains in death’” (1 Jn 3:14).
The mystical body of Christ is signified by sharing in the unity of the Church. Thomas affirms, “In reference to the mystical body of Christ, one will necessarily have eternal life if he perseveres: for the unity of the Church is brought about by the Holy Spirit: ‘One body, one Spirit … the pledge of our eternal inheritance’” (Eph 4:4; 1:14).
Thomas points out that this statement pertains also to eating in a sacramental way. Just as Baptism is a necessary sacrament, “Unless one is born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5) so Jesus declares: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man…” Thomas concludes, “Since baptism is a necessary sacrament, it seems that the Eucharist is also.”
Thomas grants that the sacrament of baptism is necessary for everyone, either in reality of by desire but “The sacrament of the Eucharist is necessary for adults only, so that it may be received in reality, or by desire.”
Thomas realizes that the Eastern Church gives the Eucharist to newly baptized infants. He affirms that the Syrian monk-author Dionysius (Denis), around 500, proposed that every sacrament should culminate in the sharing of the Eucharist. Nevertheless, Thomas agrees with this in the case of adults but he would not apply it to children, since “receiving the Eucharist should be done with reverence and devotion.”
Thomas recognizes a problem in that Jesus declared that everyone should “drink My blood.” Yet, at that time, the custom in a number of churches was that only the priest drank the blood. He believes that some churches fear that the precious blood could be spilled. Thomas acknowledges that in the early Church and, even in his time, in some churches, the reception under both forms was practiced. However, he maintains, “Whoever receives Christ’s body receives his blood also, since the entire Christ is present under each species, even his body and blood.”
Thomas reflects that the “whole Christ is contained under the species of bread and wine.” In partaking of this sacrament, “One eats His flesh and drinks His blood in a spiritual way if he is united to Him through faith and love, so that one is transformed into Him and becomes His member: for this food is not changed into the one who eats it, but it turns the one who takes it into itself”
Thomas refers to the words that Augustine received from Christ: “I am the food of the robust. Grow and you will eat me. Yet you will not change Me into yourself, but you will be transformed into Me.” Thomas concludes: “This is a food capable of making man divine and inebriating him with divinity.”
We may ask ourselves whether we actually consider that the Eucharist transforms us. It is true that the Eucharist is an encounter with Christ but we must also realize that this encounter has an effect upon us.
Thomas concludes: “So this bread is very profitable, because it gives eternal life to the soul; but it is so also because it gives eternal life to the body”: “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54). Just as material food is necessary for the body so without spiritual food, there is no spiritual life. Whoever eats this bread has Christ within him or her, Christ is “the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn 5:20).
Augustine pointed out that the Word raises up souls, and it is the Word made flesh who gives life to bodies: “Now in this sacrament the Word is present not only in His divinity, but also in the reality of His flesh; and so He is the cause of the resurrection not just of souls, but of bodies as well: ‘For as death came through a man, so the resurrection of the dead has come through a man’” (1 Cor 15:21).
Thomas relates eternal life to the Holy Spirit: “For, one who eats and drinks in a spiritual way shares in the Holy Spirit, through whom we are united to Christ by a union of faith and love, and through Him we become members of the Church. But the Holy Spirit also merits the resurrection: ‘He who raised Jesus Christ our Lord from the dead, will raise our mortal bodies because of His Spirit, who dwells in us’” (Rom 8:11).
Thomas relates eternal life with our union with Jesus: “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood is united to Me, but whoever is united to Me has eternal life: therefore, whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life.”
A person is incorporated into Jesus’ mystical body in a spiritual way through “a union of faith and love.” Thomas recalls: “Through love, God is in man, and man is in God: ‘He who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him’ (1 Jn 4:16). And this is what the Holy Spirit does; so it is also said, ‘We know that we abide in God and God in us, because He has given us His Spirit’” (1 Jn 4:13).
In addition to the spiritual union with Christ by faith and love, the Eucharist brings a sacramental union: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (Jn 6:56).
However, this sacramental union is more than the reception of the sacrament. There must be an internal reception. Thomas insists the sacrament has no effect for those who approach the sacrament with an insincere heart because there is no connection between the outward action and the interior person: “One who does not desire this union in his heart, or does not try to remove every obstacle to it, is insincere. Consequently, Christ does not abide in him nor he in Christ.”
On the contrary, those who receive the sacrament with an internal disposition really receive Christ. St. Augustine explains: “This is the way of those who eat the body of Christ and drink His blood not just sacramentally, but really… In the sacrament of the Eucharist, what is outwardly signified is that Christ is united to the one who receives it, and such a one to Christ.”
Just as the Son is united with the Father and receives life from Him, so the one who is united with Christ receives life from Him. Christ receives life from the Father; therefore one who is united to Christ receives life from Christ.
Jesus proclaimed: “Just as the living Father has sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on Me will have life because of Me” (Jn 6:57). Our similarity to the Son’s receiving from the Father is not exact because the Son receives “the fullness of divine nature.” We receive “a certain particular perfection and nature.”
There is a similarity between us and Christ in His human nature: “… as Christ the man receives spiritual life through union with God, so we too receive spiritual life in the communion or sharing in this Sacrament. Still, there is a difference: for Christ as man received life through union with the Word, to whom He is united in person; while we are united to Christ through the sacrament of faith.”
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Part I, 959-972, trans. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. and Fabian Larcher, O.P. (Albany, NY: Magi Books, Inc., 1980), 380- 386.