This morning’s Gospel reading is John 6:51–58:

Jesus said to the Jewish crowds: “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.”

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

This weekend, I will be spending much of my time at church doing photography for long-delayed First Communion celebrations. I hope you will enjoy this reflection I wrote in 2014 on this same Gospel reading. I’ll be back next week with a fresh reflection on Matthew 10:26-33. Have a blessed weekend!

Today the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communities celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, the commemoration of the Eucharist. This puts the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in stark relief for us, as well as our commitment to faith in it to form and save us. And that was true from the moment Jesus made this statement in Capernaum, where He went from the center of adoring crowds to all but abandoned in this core “hard saying” in the Gospel.

The change occurs with dramatic swiftness in the Gospel of John. John 6 starts off with Jesus moving to the Sea of Galilee in Tiberias for one of the Passovers noted during His ministry. By this time, word of Jesus’ preaching, healings, and prophecies had prompted “a multitude” to follow him to Tiberias, waiting for Him to speak even though Jesus had gone up into the hills to sit with His disciples. The crowd grew to five thousand who came without provisions, so desperate were they to hear Jesus speak. The disciples fretted about whether to send them home, but Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes to feed them all. Jesus left before they could proclaim his as an earthly king to Capernaum, on another shore in Galilee, and did so in the dark — not the easiest journey to make.

As soon as the crowd realized what had happened, though, they followed Jesus to Capernaum, and demanded to know why He had left. Jesus explained that they still didn’t grasp that His ministry wasn’t about filling stomachs and seizing power, but in performing works that would instill faith and opening their hearts to the Word of God (John 6:26-7):

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you…” 

Still uncomprehending, the crowds then demanded that Jesus explain further and explain His works. They argued that Moses had given Israel manna as an example of his authority, but Jesus rebukes them, saying that the Father gave them manna, and that Jesus Himself was the “bread of life” given by the Father so that they might have eternal life. At this, the locals began to object, as they had known Jesus as the son of the carpenter, not the Son of God. After quieting their murmurs, Jesus has to explain even further, and spells it out explicitly. “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died,” Jesus says just before today’s Gospel. “This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” Rather than resort to the usual parables, Jesus goes even further into explicit detail about the need to eat and drink his flesh and blood to share in the life of the Father and Son in today’s Gospel reading.

At this, the once-adoring crowd that wanted to proclaim Jesus king suddenly loses their enthusiasm for his teaching altogether. It wasn’t just the casual crowds either, but “many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66), after asking again whether Jesus meant what He said (John 6:60), which he affirms yet again. The exodus is so dramatic that Jesus asks his twelve core disciples whether they’d like to head for the exits, too. Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

What does this Gospel passage show? In one sense, it shows the futility of focusing on Jesus’ teaching only for one’s own purposes, and for strictly material ambitions. Jesus fed the multitude in Tiberias because they needed to be fed and they needed to see His works so that they would listen to His Word. Instead, the crowd was happy enough to have their belly filled, and balked when called to take ownership for the sacrifice of Jesus in literal terms, offered repeatedly and explicitly by Jesus.

The crowd in this case was focused on what Jesus would do for their own desires, and not in formation to the will of the Father through total surrender and obedience. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same problem Moses confronted when Israel received manna from heaven. In the first reading today (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a), Moses reminds the Israelites that God has sent them manna for the past 40 years not just to fill their bellies, but to test them and see whether they would learn that “not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” God sent the “stiff-necked people” on a 40-year journey in the wilderness to form them into a nation that would “keep His commandments.”

Jesus does the same here in Capernaum. Like the Israelites under Moses, the Israelites of Jesus’ time wanted deliverance on their own terms, someone who would bring the Kingdom of God to Jerusalem as a birthright. The institution of the Eucharist by Jesus in this passage makes it clear that it won’t be that easy. God’s people will be called to formation on a much more profound level by participation in the sacrifice that will save them, taking it into their bodies so that they are transformed into a saved people through Jesus that enter into the Kingdom of God. Merely being the descendants of those who ate the first bread from heaven in the wilderness won’t cut it.

This is also our challenge, even apart from the Eucharist itself. The Gospel challenges us to formation in the faith, not adaptation of the Word to suit our own wills, desires, and ambitions. It takes us outside our own comfort zone, and does so purposefully. The multitude on the slopes of Tiberias were happy to follow Jesus when it meant getting fed, and that was enough for some of them to proclaim Jesus their temporal lord and master. When Jesus explained what they’d really need to eat in order to follow Him into salvation, and by consequence the nature of that salvation, they chose their own wills, desires, and ambitions — and began looking for someone else who would pander to them.

This is one reason why I love the Eucharist, precisely because it is a “hard saying” and cuts against our grain in our worldly approach to life. It parallels faith itself in its uncompromising nature. Either one is all in or all out, and being all in means giving up one’s own agenda to the Lord’s. By embracing the real presence in Corpus Christi, I surrender my own agenda and ask the Father to knit me more closely to His will, and to form myself ever more to open my heart to the Holy Spirit. It’s my way of committing myself to being all in.

In doing so, as Paul writes in today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, “we, though many, are one body,” in Christ. With the “participation in the blood … [and] the body of Christ,” the new multitudes strengthen ourselves in formation to Him, His Word, and His Church. In other words, we can’t just be in it for the food.

Today’s picture is of Galilee looking toward Capernaum, from my own collection taken during our pilgrimage in 2013.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.