In the beginning

Column: John’s signs point to greater truths

by Father Mike Stubbs


It is amazing how children raised in the same family, by the same parents, in the same manner, can develop totally different personalities.

In a sense, the same thing happened with the four Gospels. They all focus upon Jesus Christ. That is their beginning point. They often deal with the same events in his life. But each Gospel has developed its own personality in carrying out the task of telling the story of Jesus. Consequently, each Gospel has put its own slant upon the events in Jesus’ life.

For example, all four Gospels recount the multiplication of the loaves and the fish, when Jesus miraculously fed the hungry crowd. But only John’s Gospel calls that miracle a “sign.” John’s Gospel consistently uses the word “sign” instead of “miracle.”

That is because, for John’s Gospel, a miracle is not only an event which reveals God’s power and compassion. It is also a sign, full of hidden meaning, waiting for us to probe its depths.

Because of that approach, John’s Gospel tends to get greater mileage out of a miracle. John will attempt to squeeze all the meaning he can out of it.

We see a clear example of that in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 6:51- 58. It is part of the long dialogue between Jesus and the crowds following the multiplication of the loaves and the fish. In the course of that dialogue, Jesus offers a teaching which reflects on the nature of that miracle and which anticipates the Eucharist.

This eucharistic dimension makes the passage particularly appropriate for our celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi. John’s Gospel is unique in offering this treatment of the multi- plication of the loaves and the fish, because he considers it a “sign,” and not merely a miracle.

In Sunday’s Gospel reading, the words of Jesus serve as a teaching on the Eucharist. But the way Jesus uses words — specifically the words “life,” “flesh,” and “food” — parallels the way the sacraments work.

The eternal life of which Jesus speaks is not life as we usually think, as experienced by our physical body. It is the life of the Spirit. Similarly, the food that Jesus speaks of is not food in the usual sense: nourishment meant to sustain that physical body. Nor is the flesh Jesus speaks of flesh as we ordinarily know it. Jesus is pointing to a reality which lies beyond the everyday reality we know.

That is exactly how the sacraments operate. They point to a spiritual reality by using a physical, tangible reality. For example, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we consume the body and blood of Jesus. That physical act of eating and drinking points to the reality of spiritual nourishment and brings us into that reality.

That is how the Eucharist bridges the gap between heaven and earth. And that is why we call the Eucharist “the bread of heaven,” besides the fact that Jesus in the Gospel of John also uses that term: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

Throughout his Gospel, John is constantly pointing to a spiritual reality beyond that of our world. That approach of John contributes to the otherworldly, mystical personality of his Gospel. It helps explain why his Gospel is often called the most theological, why the emblem of John the evangelist is the eagle, which soars up into the heights of heaven.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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