by Father Mike Stubbs
While I like my food to be fresh, I draw the line at having it still alive.
That is why I balk at oysters on the half shell. The thought of a living creature sliding down my throat does not sound appetizing. I suppose that I am too much of a Midwesterner. I do not relish the idea of eating anything still living.
And yet, in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 6:51-58, Jesus proclaims, “I am the living bread.” We should note that earlier in the Gospel, in the readings that we heard the last two Sundays, Jesus identified himself as the bread come down from heaven and as the bread of life. These statements of Jesus all share the common element of bread, but they still differ slightly. By calling himself the living bread, Jesus takes them one step further. Actually, it may look like a giant leap — one that takes an act of faith on our part.
Why does Jesus identify himself as the living bread? Taken as a whole, the metaphor does not make sense. Bread does not live. Admittedly, it is made from material once part of a living plant: wheat kernels ground into flour. But once baked, the bread is far from alive. (We face a similarly problematic metaphor in 1 Pt 2:4, which calls Jesus a “living stone.”) We can only make sense of this metaphor if we divide it into those two parts: bread and living.
Jesus is bread in the sense that he nourishes our spirits. He is substantial and tangible and solid, something we can grab hold of. He is bread in the sense that he comes to us under the appearance of bread in the Eucharist.
Secondly, Jesus is living in the sense that he shares intimate communion with God the Father. He enjoys a depth of life which we describe as eternal life when we experience it. Compared to it, our ordinary life looks like death. Jesus is living and he wants us also to live, in a way beyond our ordinary, physical lives as human beings.
Sunday’s Gospel reading makes that abundantly clear. It repeatedly offers life to us: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever. . . . The bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”
The various forms of the noun “life” or the verb “live” occur nine times
in our Gospel reading. This frequent occurrence reflects the emphasis throughout John’s Gospel upon life, upon living. The word “life” appears 49 times in John’s Gospel, compared to 10 times in Mark’s Gospel, 17 times in Luke’s Gospel, and 15 times in Matthew’s Gospel. The theme of life dominates John’s Gospel in a way altogether lacking in the other Gospels.
It is because Jesus is “living” that he can give us life, even eternal life. When we eat the consecrated bread of the Eucharist, when we receive Jesus, we receive the bread of life, the “living bread.”