The Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, Year A
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a; Psalm 137:12-13, 14-15, 19-20; 1 Cor 10:16-17; John 6:51-58
Food and drink that are more than food and drink is a theme running throughout the three readings for the celebration of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The first reading begins with Moses addressing the Israelites in the wilderness. By this time the Israelite migration had moved from Mt. Horeb (Sinai) to the Plains of Moab east and northeast of the Dead Sea. Moses refreshes their memory of their decades-long migration, all of it directed by the Lord God. What was the Lord’s purpose? “To test you by affliction, to ascertain whether or not you had the intention to live by the commandments,” (the Torah, the Covenant), they had received and agreed to at Mt. Sinai (Horeb). They failed many times, but somehow through Moses’ intercession and God’s mercy they have come this far. Now we get to the part that determined the choice of this reading for today’s liturgy. The Lord let them be hungry, then fed them with manna, a food unknown to them and their ancestors. “A food unknown” is a play on the popular understanding of the origin of the word “manna.” Since the Israelites did not know what it was, when they saw it scattered on the ground in the morning, they asked, “Man hu?” or “What is this?”
Moses gives the manna a meaning other than food for the body, “He fed you. . . in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” The “word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord” refers to the stipulations of the Covenant (treaty), the commandments etc. The Bread of Life Discourse, chapter 6 of the Gospel, will use this sentence of Moses’ address as foundational to instruct that the Bread of Life, first symbolized by the manna in the wilderness, is the revelation that Jesus brings from the Father, the revelation that Jesus is from the Father, and the food and drink that is the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. All three of these categories are the Word that “comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” Before the Israelites experience the dangers that come with settling among the inhabitants of the Promised Land, (idolatry, sexual immorality, child sacrifice), he reminds them of all that the Lord God had done for them, especially how he sustained them as “he brought forth water for you from the rock, and fed you in the desert with manna . . . .” Thus the first reading ends with the theme of food and drink — a bridge to the second reading and gospel. If they remember the Lord’s deeds for them, they will not abandon him after their arrival.
The Responsorial Psalm 147 is a hymn demanding that Jerusalem (Zion) praise the Lord. Zion is the hill on which the original fortress was built. The name “Zion” can be used as a synonym for Jerusalem, for the temple area or temple, or the people of Jerusalem. The selection of this Psalm for today’s liturgy was determined by this verse, “with the best of wheat he fills you.” This brings the Responsorial Psalm into the theme of feeding that runs throughout the readings.
As Moses in the first reading reminded his people of what God had done for them as a warning against idolatry, so Paul also warns his new converts in Corinth about the dangers of idolatry. He instructs, “The cup of blessing that we bless, (at celebration of the Eucharist), is a communion (participation) in the blood of Christ. The bread that we break is a communion in the body of Christ.” He adds an aside to promote the unity so lacking among his Corinthian Christians. “Because the loaf of bread is one, we though many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf.” What he is really getting at here, some of his “parishioners” were still participating in the banquets of the heathen temples, which Paul calls the cup of demons and the table of demons.
The gospel reading is the climactic part of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6. Up to this point in the discourse John instructed us that the revelation that Jesus brings from the Father is the true bread from heaven. The next step instructs us that the revelation that Jesus is from the Father is the true bread from heaven. As noted above, this New Testament teaching rests on Deut. 8:3from our first reading. In an interpretation of the manna, the theologians of Deuteronomy elevate the meaning of the manna from bodily food to spiritual food, “every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” The next (the third) step goes beyond Deuteronomy 8:3. At the beginning of his gospel, the author identifies Jesus as the Word of God, not only as God’s word of revelation, but in a profoundly personal way, a Person “who was made flesh and pitched his tent among us.”
Now in this third step it is this Word that John claims as the ultimate Bread from Heaven, “not like your ancestors who ate and still died. Whoever eats this bread, will live forever.” Combining what Paul proclaims in 1 Cor 11:23-26, and the three narratives of the Last Supper in Mark, Matthew, Luke, it is Jesus under the form of bread and wine that becomes the true and final Bread from Heaven. Or is this a symbol only, as some Catholic Christians have come to believe out of ignorance or from lack of instruction? Can we quote a notorious statement here, “It depends on what you mean by is?” There is no indication in any of the four Last Supper narratives that “is” means anything other than reality — not represents, not stands for, not symbolizes, but simply “This is my Body,” and “This is my Blood.” The language used by the Gospel of John speaks reality, not symbolism. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” John first uses the Greek verb Phagein , which can be used also of ingesting wisdom, but then moves to the Greek verb Trogein, which means “to gnaw, nibble, munch, chew,” often used of animals eating. This seems to be a deliberate coarsening of language to insist on the reality of physically eating food, since animals can hardly be said to ingest wisdom. The results of John’s instruction attributed to Jesus confirm the reality of ingesting true food and drink. Many of his disciples left him because of this “hard saying,” as many do today, if not openly, then secretly.