“I am the living bread” – Reflection and Lectio Divina for Corpus Christi

Reflection for Corpus Christi by Fr Michael Scott, Salesian Missionary.

Corpus Christi Year A – Lectio divina on John 6,51-58

As his Jewish listeners well understood, after insisting on faith in his word, Jesus offers himself as nourishment. He promises life to those who sit at table with him. The realism of the language Jesus uses shocks us a bit even today. The objection of the Jews could be made even at the present time. And yet, Jesus repeats, there is no other way to life after death except by nourishing ourselves from him. Like manna he comes from God, but those who ate manna died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. Jesus was speaking to people who had suffered hunger and had been fed miraculously by him. He wants to unite them to him forever, more by hunger than by a miracle. Being fed by a once-off miracle is less important than having someone who can nourish us always. But what Jesus demands – that they take him as food  – is too much for them to accept. The problem is that anyone who thinks he can be saved without eating this food remains condemned to death forever.  Jesus gave a warning as well as a promise. Anyone who rejects Jesus’ teaching will die. His future is eternal death.

At that time: Jesus said to the crowds of the Jews:  51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”

I. Read: understand what the text says, focussing on how it says it.

Having satisfied the hunger of the crowd, (6,1-16), Jesus now, in this long discourse (6,25-71), seeks to satisfy his listeners’ souls. He offers, first his word, then his person, to those to whom he had earlier given only bread. The miracle had taken place on the mountain near the lake (6,1.3); the discourse was given in the synagogue at Capernaum (6,24.59); two different settings but with the same people involved – Jesus, the crowd and the disciples. The short passage addressed to the Jews in the second half of the discourse (6,48-58) is well inserted in context (6,51.58): anyone who eats this bread will live for ever. To avoid any misunderstanding that might arise, Jesus makes it clear that he is not just the one who provides food, but that he is the food.  And so he says: “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you.” As usual in John’s gospel, Jesus does not resolve or clarify the question. He repeats what he has said and expands on it, increasing the scandal. The purpose of eating and drinking is to keep one alive. For his listeners, it is the food and drink that create the problem. They must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life. This is the concrete way to accept Jesus who gives himself to us. He fulfils the purpose of giving life because he satisfies the hunger and thirst for life in an authentic way: he is true food and true drink (6,52-55).  And it is as a fragile, mortal human being that he satisfies our hunger and thirst. Flesh and blood refer precisely to the humanity of Jesus. Thus a new, previously unheard-of idea enters the discussion about revelation. From believing in him and in his word it has now come to feeding on him, eating his flesh (6,51c). This is a new and unusual way of relating to Jesus. It is not enough to believe in him. It is necessary to be nourished on him.

The life offered by eating the body of Jesus is not transitory, as was the life of the Israelites in the desert (6,58).  Whoever eats his flesh remains in Jesus, in his life (6,56; cf. 8,31; 15,4-9.10).  Instead of just assimilating him as food, whoever eats him lives in him. The food eaten and the table-companion are one and the same. Jesus remains in the Father and the Father in Jesus. This permanent mutual relationship between Jesus and the Father is the model of the relationship between the Son and the believer, and it makes that relationship possible. Life is the link which unites the three: the Father, the source of life, his Son sent as the living Apostle, and the believer who will live because he is nourished by him. What is needed therefore is not a simple spiritual acceptance. The faith that is called for is not just mental assent nor a sentimental feeling. It is an intimate union, bodily acceptance, association by appropriation, permanent adhesion. The Christian is more than just a believer – he is a table-companion of Jesus. The Israelites who were nourished in the desert with bread from heaven died. They were not table-companions of Jesus.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life.

The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us of the decision of God who became incarnate in Jesus to make himself food for us, permanent sustenance and energy of life.  In the face of such an incomprehensible choice, what can we do but admire in silence, be grateful and become his table-companions?  The Gospel text helps us by providing material for our Eucharistic adoration, bread for our hunger and drink for our thirst.

When we are worried about the normal necessities of life, we set to work to provide them. However, despite our best efforts we are unable to add one day or one moment to our lives. Our needs are more than we can satisfy. Our hunger is greater and longer-lasting than the food we have. Our hearts desire more than our hands can give.  Our needs, spiritual and material, are always greater than our capacity to meet them.  We continue to hunger, even though we eat every day.  We drink constantly but we never stop feeling thirst. This strange fact of our being “obliges” God to make himself our food.

In the Gospel Jesus is presented as living bread which will not only preserve us in life by saving us from death, but will also obtain for us a life without death. Our longing for fullness, our deep desire to be fully satisfied one day, our need to satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst forever, find a response in God’s promise to give us himself as the solution to our most vital needs. He is our food today, and tomorrow he will be our life. This is our hope because it is his promise. We cannot fail to find in this a cause of joy and peace, a reason to celebrate, even in the midst of suffering.

We have, therefore, a God who is sensitive to our needs and allows himself to be moved by our deficiencies. If we believe in him we can be sure that our many forms of hunger will not overcome us, that we will not be drowned in our weaknesses and that death will not conquer life in us. Like the Israelites in the desert, we must learn to find God present in our necessities.  The more we hunger, the more likely we are to think of food. The greater our thirst, the more we think of water. The more we lack life, or when life feels least secure, there we find God waiting for us. God may leave us unsatisfied until we decide, once and for all, to follow him.  When we feel no hunger, we believe we can live without God – this should make us think.  This is the tragedy of our society, a society that is no longer Christian, and it is the tragedy of our hearts, if we think we can live without God.  We think we have no need of God because we have met all our needs. We are fed up with too much to eat, and so we become fed up with God. We are satisfied with what we have, and we don’t feel the need to satisfy our hunger for God.

If Jesus is not food for our hunger and drink for our thirst, then clearly he cannot claim to satisfy our hunger for bread or quench our thirst for water. As once in the desert, the food that God gives to his people is not just bread for our mouths, but every word he chooses to speak to us. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  If we live to do the will of God then we will be sated, and our greatest desires satisfied. If, instead, we seek to satisfy our hunger with our own plans, it will lead us unfortunately to the point where we do not feel the need of God.

We should not be afraid of suffering want, since this is the way to find God. We are driven to Christ by our needs, visible or invisible, material or spiritual. We have nothing to fear from a God who has made himself our sustenance when we are weak and our support when we are weary. Neither should we fear hunger, if it obliges us to put our trust in God who is our true nourishment. Not being self-sufficient, not being able to secure food and life forever, is far from being a disaster. We have a God who is determined to satisfy our desire for him and our deepest needs. If we really feel a hunger for God, then why don’t we make him our nourishment? If we stay away from the Eucharist we increase our hunger for God and our dissatisfaction. Since he offers us himself as food to nourish our life forever, we should nourish ourselves on him, making his word and his body our food of life.

We who share the bread are many, and our needs and desires are many, but there is only one  food that can sustain us. Communicating with the one God should make it easy for us to communicate with the neighbour who is nourished with the same God.  Having our needs satisfied by God should not make us indifferent to our neighbour who is in need of God and of us. If we remain absorbed in self, isolated from our neighbour, after eating the same bread and drinking the same blood, we are unworthy of the body of Christ. If we ignore the needs of our neighbour who has shared the Eucharist with us in faith, we will remain unsatisfied with God, no matter how much faith we bring to our celebration of the Eucharist.

We need to ask ourselves, is this not the reason why, despite having celebrated Eucharist so many times, and received so often the body of Christ, we do not feel satisfied either with ourselves or with God. Anyone who neglects his neighbour and does not care about his neighbour’s needs, will not feel God’s loving care in his own life. Coming closer to Christ means coming closer to our neighbour. This is the only way to adore the mystery we celebrate, because it is the only way to begin to make real what we believe.

God will be food for our hunger if we feed our hungry brother – no more, no less! It could well be that God allows our hunger to grow, and increases our dissatisfaction, precisely because we accumulate other things for our own nourishment, and neglect our needy brother.  Frequent participation in the Eucharist is not enough for God to fulfil our needs.  The Eucharist becomes efficacious when it transforms us into bread that satisfies the needs of our neighbour. That is what makes our celebration of the mystery of the Body of Christ worthy. We receive Christ as effective nourishment only when we allow ourselves to become nourishment for our brother.