Is the Bread of Life discourse about the eucharist? The language of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood has long been interpreted as a reference to the Christian sacrament.
At the same time, not all interpreters have been convinced. Interestingly, the Council of Trent, recognizing that not all of the early church fathers agreed on the meaning of this passage, decided against using it as a proof for the Catholic understanding of the sacrament.
Just recently, a new book has been released that argues against a sacramental reading of Jesus' teaching in John 6: Meredith J.C. Warren, My Flesh is Meat Indeed: A Nonsacramental Reading of John 6:51-58 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).
Here we cannot address every aspect of the debate. Indeed, the reading from John 6 continues into the next couple of Sundays, so some of the key passages involved in the discussion (e.g., John 6:63) won't be read until next Sunday.
In this commentary, then, I'd like to look specifically at the passages in view and highlight the relationship of the Gospel to the First Reading.
FIRST READING: 1 Kings 19:4-8
Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert,until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.In this Sunday's first reading we hear the story of Elijah's journey into the wilderness. The Gospel, of course, will highlight the story of Israel receiving the manna in the wilderness, the story highlighted in last Sunday's First Reading. So what connection is there between Jesus' teaching that he is the new manna, and this story from 1 Kings?
He prayed for death saying:“This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cakeand a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,touched him, and ordered,“Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”
He got up, ate, and drank;then strengthened by that food,he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.
- The author of the Fourth Gospel understood that the story related a miracle is clear from the fact that he refers to it as a sēmeion (cf. John 6:14), “sign”, a term he uses for miracles (cf. John 2:11; 4:54).
- The Fourth Gospel explicitly states that the fragments left over which filled twelve baskets came “from” the original five loaves (John 6:13: ek tōn pente artōn tōn krithinōn).
The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said,“I am the bread that came down from heaven, ”and they said,“Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?
Do we not know his father and mother?
Then how can he say,‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus answered and said to them,“Stop murmuring among yourselves.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets:'They shall all be taught by God.'Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
Not that anyone has seen the Fatherexcept the one who is from God;he has seen the Father.
Amen, amen, I say to you,whoever believes has eternal life.
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 heavenso that one may eat it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;whoever eats this bread will live forever;and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Now some have called into the question the eucharistic reading. Without getting into the verses in the next section of the reading (see the commentary next week), let's just make something abundantly clear: the Bread of Life discourse immediately follows the multiplication of the loaves and fish, a miracle that, in the Synoptic Gospels, is clearly linked to the institution of the eucharistic at the Last Supper.
Those who aspire to sanctity by giving themselves completely to the active life while neglecting the life of prayer may just as well forget about Christian perfection. Experience proves that there is absolutely nothing that can supply for the life of prayer, not even the daily reception of the Eucharist. There are many persons who receive Communion every day, yet their spiritual life is mediocre and lukewarm. The reason is none other than the lack of mental prayer, either because they omit it entirely or they practice it in a mechanical and routine fashion. We repeat that without prayer it is impossible to attain Christian perfection, no matter what our state of life or the occupation to which we dedicate ourselves.—Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, ch. 12