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. … and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
We are in the middle of what has been called the Eucharistic discourse of Jesus. The dialogue between Jesus and His followers is fast moving toward its conclusion, and today we hear this great promise of Jesus that He is the bread that comes down from heaven and that the man who eats this bread – with faith of course – will not die, but will live forever. Faith is absolutely required for salvation, as Jesus reminds us just above: “amen amen I say to you, whoever believes has Eternal Life.” So faith is required if one is to eat the bread from heaven so as to never die. Faith is the key to possessing Eternal Life, and Eternal Life is had most wonderfully in the Eucharist. What else can Jesus’ words mean?
Nonetheless, these words of Jesus – regarding the bread from heaven, which is identified here with His flesh, that is, with Himself in the fullness of His humanity – certainly are mysterious words, and only faith enables us to accept them as true. Jesus is speaking here about a wholly new “manna” which is as far superior to the manna of the Old Testament as Jesus is superior to all the great figures of the Old Testament taken together. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert,” says Jesus, “but they died.” The new “manna”, however, is infinitely superior, for when we eat this new manna with faith, it brings us Eternal Life.
Think about this statement. Jesus certainly knew that all those who would eat the Eucharist would, in fact, eventually suffer death in the body. So, unless we are to assume the Jesus was profoundly mistaken, we have to understand that He must be using the words “death” and “life” in a wholly different way than we normally understand those terms. The “life” He speaks about here cannot refer to simple biological life, the life of the body, for our bodies, like all flesh, is grass, and as a result of sin, like grass it too will one day perish. No, the “life” that Jesus speaks about here is actually God’s life, a “life” which is absolutely immortal, and it is this “Eternal Life” that Jesus gives us by giving us Himself and thereby giving us a share in His divine life.
Yet we must not think that this divine life, which Jesus alone can give to us, is not intended for the physical body and thus is not destined for our bodies. Eternal Life for man is not a life that can only be lived outside the body, as it is lived right now by the blessed souls in Heaven – but only until their resurrection. That is why Jesus speaks of the resurrection in this same text where He teaches us about the Eucharist. At the resurrection, the risen body too, which has forever lost its natural, biological life, will then share in the Eternal Life that Jesus gives us, and thus that glorified body will never die again.
This is the great promise Jesus makes in this text, that, while faith through baptism brings us Eternal Life infused directly in the soul, that same gift of Eternal Life is also promised and destined for the body as well, at the resurrection. Moreover, He teaches us that this new life in the soul, which is eventually destined for the resurrected and glorified body, is in fact nourished already in this world through the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ. The doctrinal realism of the Eucharist – the fact that the Eucharist is the real body and blood of Christ and really nourishes our souls – points us to the equal realism of the corporeal resurrection and the truth that our bodies too will posses this gift of Eternal Life. Jesus assures us that the man who eats the Eucharist with faith will one day be raised bodily from the dead and will never die again. Thus the divine life, Eternal Life, will extend to our bodies just as it now permeates the soul of the man who believes in Jesus.
This belief in the bodily realism of the Eucharist is the true source of Christian hope through which 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. Our bodies too will be made immortal and will participate in the ecstasy of God’s beatitude. It is this faith and this concrete hope that carries us forward, keeps us from always looking back to what has been lost, and keeps us ever looking to the future for what we hope to gain when the promise of Jesus will be fulfilled. This faith and this hope will fill us with profound gratitude and love, and this grateful love becomes the interior energy of this new life being lived partially here and now. This faith, hope, and love drives 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, he will enjoy that Eternal Life in the flesh itself.
Thus, when Jesus says that “your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died,” He is pointing to the fact that this old manna was only a temporary solution to the problems of man’s natural life like hunger. The new manna, on the other hand, is not a temporary fix but a final solution to man’s deepest needs and deepest desire for life to the full. As great as modern science and modern medicine are, in the end they can only offer us a temporary fix for suffering and the threat of death, but they cannot ultimately save man from death. Certainly we Christians are grateful for all the wonders of modern medicine, but in the end the best medicine can do is only delay but cannot eliminate death.
Moreover, we all know that these modern wonders cannot heal the deepest spiritual wounds of our nature, that a person can be perfectly healthy in the body and still be very unhappy, even miserable in life. These great products of man’s genius cannot heal the wounds that consume men interiorly, hatred, jealousy, resentment, envy, bitterness, etc. At best these inventions can sometimes offer temporary fixes, through drugs or therapy, but in the end man’s condition is often worse for all these efforts.
To be accurate, even Jesus’ miracles, unlike the Eucharist, offered only a temporary fix for the hungry, for the suffering and even for the dead whom He raised up. The crowds who were fed would be hungry again; those who were freed from suffering will know suffering again; and the people Jesus raised from the dead would in fact die again. Jesus did not come to offer His followers an easy escape from life and its troubles, even by means of His miracles.
Rather, what Jesus came to give us, by His grace, is a whole new life principle, indeed a whole new life and a new kind of love that can conquer even death itself, which will actually happen in the resurrection of the body. Meanwhile, we Christians like all mortals receive only temporary fixes, more or less permanent, but never perfect in this life. Suffering and death in the physical order remain in our destiny, as does the tendency to sin, until He comes again. For, in the end, only Jesus can offer us the permanent solution to all these physical and moral evils by His mercy, and by the power of the Eucharist, and by the Resurrection.
It’s quite obvious that fewer people believe in the truth and the power of the Eucharist today, and thus it is no surprise that fewer and fewer people seem capable of the supernatural love that alone can overcome everything in this life, including death. It is also not surprising that with this loss of faith and the dying of true charity, hope will also seem impossible to many today.
Faith in Jesus and in the power of His sacraments, especially the power of the Eucharist, are the foundations of true Christian hope. What modern man needs is what all men have always needed, that is, a deep interior conversion of soul that leads to faith in Jesus Christ and His Church, rather than in our own power to save ourselves. Such a conversion always seems more accessible to the poor and the humble than to the rich and the proud, who think they can save themselves by their intellect and their own resources. Whether in Jesus’ age or in 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 in our own culture.
But the fact remains that there is no faith without conversion, and there is no conversion without 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 that deep conversion, without surrender. Only when man surrenders can he hope to receive the true Bread from Heaven which brings Eternal Life, and which enables us to move always forward to the Kingdom of Heaven. 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. So, come, let us “taste and see how good the LORD is;” for truly ”blessed the man who takes refuge in him.”