19th Sunday of the Year
I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died;
this is the bread that comes down from heaven
so that one may eat it and not die.
Today we continue our reading of the Eucharistic discourse of Jesus. The dialogue between Jesus and his followers is becoming more intense, as we hear this stunning declaration of Jesus that he is the bread that comes down from heaven and we hear his solemn promise that the man who eats this bread, with faith of course, will not die, but will live forever. Faith is absolutely required for our salvation, and this teaching of Jesus demands true faith as Jesus tells his listeners: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life” What else can Jesus words mean here? Yes, faith is required if one is to eat the Bread from Heaven and never die. Faith in the Eucharist is the access to eternal life.
Nonetheless, these words of Jesus about the Bread from Heaven – which he quite literally identifies as his flesh, that is, with himself in the fullness of his humanity – certainly are mysterious words, and only faith enables anyone to accept them as true. Jesus speaks of his flesh as a new “manna” which is as far superior to the manna of the Old Testament as Jesus Himself is to the Old Testament. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert,” says Jesus, “but they [eventually] died.” But the new “manna” is infinitely superior to the original “manna in the sesert”, for when anyone eats this new manna, with faith, it brings him eternal life.
But think about this claim of the discourse for a moment, that Jesus states openly that the one who eats this bread – his flesh – will “not die.” Yet we know, and certainly Jesus knew that those who would eat the Eucharist would in fact one day “die.” So what can he possibly mean by saying they will not die?
Faith assures the believer that Jesus must be using the words “death” and “life” in a somewhat different way than we normally understand those terms. The “life” he speaks about here cannot be simple, biological life, the life of the body as we know it. For the earthly body, according to Isaiah is like grass– “All flesh is grass. (40:6)” and, as a result of sin, like grass it’s life will perish one day. But the life Jesus speaks about here is not biological life but God’s life, a life which is intrinsically immortal, eternal, and it is this “life” that Jesus gives us by giving us himself, by giving us a share in his divine life.
On the other hand, we must not think that this life which Jesus alone gives us, and fortifies in the Eucharist, does not actually belong to the body, is not destined for the body, but only for the soul. Eternal life for man is not a life outside the body, at least not forever. That is why Jesus speaks of the Resurrection – and I will raise him on the last day – in the same breath where he teaches us about the Eucharist. Even the body, which will lose its natural, biological life, will one day, in the Resurrection of the dead, fully share in the eternal life that Jesus gives us, and it will never know death again. That is the stupendous promise of Jesus, that just as faith brings us eternal life through Baptism, through which eternal life is first planted in the body, so that life is shown to be destined for the flesh itself when it is strengthened by the Eucharist. The man who eats the Eucharist with faith is promised that he will be raised from the dead and will never die. Thus the divine life, eternal life, will extend to the body just as it now permeates the soul of man who believes in Jesus.
This belief in the Eucharist, as food for body and soul, is the great source of Christian hope where the believer yearns for the future when the promise will be complete, when Jesus will return and raise our mortal flesh to eternal life, never to die again. It is this faith which grounds our hope which carries us forward, keeps us from always looking back to what has been lost by looking forward to what we hope to gain when the promise of Jesus will be fulfilled. This Eucharistic faith, and the hope it fortifies, fills us with the greatest gratitude, and love becomes the interior energy of this new life here and now, propelling us forward to meet the bridegroom who is coming one day to fulfill his promise that whoever believes in him will have eternal life, and, because of the Eucharist, will have that eternal life in the flesh.
When Jesus says that your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they all died, he is pointing to the fact that this manna was only a temporary solution to their problem of hunger and to man’s fragile natural life. The new manna is not a temporary fix but a final solution to man’s deepest natural need, his desire to live forever. As great as modern science and modern medicine are, they can only offer a temporary fix for suffering and for the threat of death, but ultimately they cannot save man from death. Certainly we are grateful for the wonders of modern medicine, but in the end the best medicine can only delay but cannot eliminate death even on the biological level.
Moreover, these modern miracles cannot even heal the deepest wounds of our nature, for we know that we can be perfectly healthy in the body and still be very unhappy, even miserable. These products of man’s genius cannot heal the wounds that consume us interiorly, hatred, and jealousy, and resentment, envy, bitterness etc. Again, they can sometimes offer temporary fixes, through drugs or therapy, but in the end man’s condition is often worse for all these efforts, like the woman in the Gospel who spent everything on doctors and ended up just as sick as ever.
In this sense, even Jesus’ miracles, unlike the Eucharist, offered only a temporary fix for the hungry he fed, for the suffering he relieved and for the dead whom he raised. The crowds would be hungry again, and those who suffered would know suffering again, and the people He raised from the dead would die again. Jesus did not offer his followers an escape from life and its troubles, even by his miracles. But what Jesus gives us by his grace is a new life principle, a new life and a new love that can conquer even death itself in the Resurrection of the body that will happen when he returns in glory. Meanwhile we receive only partial remedies, more or less permanent, but never perfect in this life as received from our tendency to sin, to suffer and to die. But in the end only Jesus will bring us the permanent solution to all these evils by his mercy, by the power of the Eucharist and by the Resurrection.
It’s quite tragic that fewer Christians seem to truly believe in the power of the Eucharist today than in some previous ages, and thus it is no mere coincidence that fewer Christians today seem capable of a love that can overcome everything in this life, including death. It is also no surprise that with this loss of faith and the cooling of love, hope would also seem impossible to many. Faith in Jesus and the power of his sacraments, especially the power of the Eucharist, are the foundations of Christian hope. What modern man most needs is what men have always needed, a deep conversion that leads to faith in Jesus Christ and not in our own power. Conversion always seems something more accessible to the poor and the humble than it is to the rich and the proud. Whether in Jesus’ age or our own, conversion is more difficult for the rich because they tend to think their wealth makes them self-sufficient; it is more difficult for the learned because learning is often accompanied by pride and arrogance as we see in the Gospels, and today in our own arrogant culture.
We must accept that there is no faith without conversion, and that conversion requires a total surrender of man to God, surrender of the mind, the soul and the body. That is why Jesus does not apologize for his teaching on the Eucharist, for no one can believe in him or in the Eucharist without a deep interior conversion, without surrender. Only when man surrenders can he receive the Bread from Heaven which brings eternal life, and which enables us to move forward into the kingdom of God. Like Ezekiel in today’s first reading, we need to eat and drink at the Eucharistic table if we are to have the strength to make the journey all the way to the mountain of God. Jesus himself is our life, our food and our destiny. Come, then, let us “taste and see how good the LORD is;” for truly “blessed the man who takes refuge in him.”