A few weeks ago, Deacon Michael Goodwin mentioned in his homily here that we are taking a five-week break from the Gospel of Mark, whose readings we have been hearing throughout Ordinary Time this year. So, during this five-week break from Mark’s Gospel, we hear readings from the Gospel of John Chapter 6, which gives us scriptural basis for what we believe about the Eucharist. In other words, in this chapter, Jesus begins to teach his followers – and by extension, the whole Church – about the gift of the Eucharist that he will soon be giving to the Church.
The Eucharist is central to our faith. It is central to every Mass – it’s the high point of every Mass. Everything in the Mass leads up to it. And then what happens in the Mass after Communion? Very little – there is a prayer of thanksgiving – inevitably there are some announcements – and then we are dismissed to go out into the world and live our faith, which we have professed and hopefully learned more about during the Mass. So the Eucharist is the high point of our faith – it has been called the summit of our faith – and it’s also the food we need to help us live out this faith in the world.
So Jesus begins to teach his disciples about this gift he will soon be giving to the Church. The feeding of the 5000 was a foreshadowing of it. Just as Jesus multiplied a tiny amount of food and used it to feed a huge crowd, so too will he multiply himself as food for the generations and generations who would come after.
So our Gospel reading today is really part three in a series of five, and each of these parts is naturally related to the others. As we hear them, they follow and go deeper into the same theme. So, let’s quickly review what we’ve heard so far: Part One, two weeks ago: Jesus multiplied the five loaves and two fish and fed the huge crowd. Part two, last Sunday, the Jews track him down after this miracle and ask Jesus for another sign, to which he responds by calling himself the bread which comes down from heaven. And now today, the Jews are starting to murmur among themselves, “How can this man say he came down from heaven? We know his father and mother.” They’re starting to think he’s either a little crazy or perhaps maybe even a religious heretic. The opposition is going to get even stronger next week.
But for now, Jesus responds to their murmuring by doubling down on what he has already said about himself. He says again: “I am the bread of life…the living bread that came down from heaven.” And then he says, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” And next week Jesus speaks even more boldly about this. He is not going to back down even though he knows that the people are starting to mumble and grumble about what he’s saying. He’s not going to back-pedal or soften this teaching or try to diminish it to make it easier to accept.
But I am starting to get ahead of myself; I am starting to go into next Sunday’s homily. So going back to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is preparing his disciples for this radical teaching on the Eucharist. And he does so by telling them that it starts with faith: “Whoever believes has eternal life.” And this follows what he said in last Sunday’s Gospel: “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life.” To accept the Eucharist, we first have to believe in Jesus Christ. We first have to believe that He has the power to do this. Just as he has the power to feed a crowd of thousands of people with hardly any food, he also has the power to give himself as food for those who believe in him. And “believe” does not mean “understand”. It also does not mean, “never have any doubts.” Believe means accepting that something is true, or at least being willing to accept that something is true. So Jesus calls us to accept that He is who he says is, that He has come down from heaven so that we might have eternal life. And he gives us eternal life by giving himself to us.
How does Jesus give himself to us? By laying down his life for us on the Cross. He literally gives up his body to death in atonement for the sins of humanity. He gives his body as a spiritual sacrifice to the Father to atone for our sins. And then that spiritual sacrifice of his body is given to us as food – spiritual food to strengthen us for our journey through this life. The Church teaches that every time the priest consecrates bread and wine at the Mass, they become Jesus’ actual Body and Blood. And doing so is a participation in the same sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross. We are not crucifying Jesus again; rather, it’s like we are all suddenly transported back in time to that place and time when Jesus is dying on the Cross for us. Every Mass takes us back to that same moment; we are entering in a mystical way into Jesus’ one and perfect sacrifice on the Cross.
We heard in our first reading from the first Book of Kings how Elijah had journeyed into the desert. He was being hunted down by his enemies, and he was ready to give up. He even prayed for death. But then an angel awakened him and gave him a hearth cake and some water. I don’t know exactly what a “hearth cake” is, but the angel told him he needed to eat it to give him strength to continue his journey further into the desert where he would have an encounter with the Lord.
The Eucharist is the food the Lord gives us to strengthen us for our journey through the desert of this life, on our way to an encounter with Him when we come to the end of this life. And the condition for this is faith – believing in Jesus, that he is who he says he is: the bread of life come down from heaven, to feed us so that we might one day have eternal life.