+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
This Sunday we continue exploring the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St John, a chapter that begins with the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, and continues with that passage of Jesus’ teaching known as the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus speaks of Himself as the “Bread of Life”, and as “the Living Bread that came down from heaven”.
Last week I spoke about the ways in which this points us to the Incarnation, that wonderful truth that in a miracle of humility the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, laid in a manger, from which animals eat, in Bethlehem, the House of Bread.
And I spoke too about the way in which each Christian life is like an Incarnation in miniature, about the way in which Christ is brought to birth in the heart of each believer, and how in the Eucharist we too are brought to Bethlehem to adore the Divine Presence, and to be restored and renewed by the Living Bread.
But today Jesus’ teaching takes what we might consider to be a darker turn:
The Bread which I give for the life of the world is my flesh.
In the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus not only invites us to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation, but also that other great mystery of His life, the mystery of the Cross. “…the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The humility of the Incarnation leads to the humiliation of the Cross. The broken bread of the miracle of the loaves and fishes points us to the broken bread of the Last Supper, which points in turn to the broken body on the Cross. The Living Bread that came down from heaven must and will be broken for us.
The Incarnation and the Cross, these are two of the Church’s great teachings about Jesus: that in Jesus, God became man and dwelt among us, and accepted the path of suffering, humiliation, and even death, for our sake.
O taste and see that the Lord is gracious : blessed are those who trust in Him.
Psalm 34 has a natural and obvious point of connection with today’s gospel: “O taste and see that the Lord is gracious” has been interpreted by Christians in the light of the Eucharist for innumerable generations. But taken as a whole, the psalm stands in the Wisdom Tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, and in common with many other wisdom psalms, it is arranged in alphabetical order, each verse beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The primary theme of the psalm is God’s faithfulness to those who are faithful to Him. “Fear the Lord, you His holy ones”, the psalmist writes, “for those who fear Him shall lack nothing”. The psalmist is confident that the Lord will hear the prayer of the suffering faithful, and will save them out of all their trouble; “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, that he may deliver them”.
Our first thought may be that the Cross stands in contradiction to the message of Psalm 34, and in contradiction to that whole strand of Old Testament writing about God and God’s people which seems to straightforwardly connect faithfulness to God with safety and prosperity. Jesus is the One who perfectly fulfils the ideal of the Wisdom Tradition of the just person who is faithful to God, and yet the angel of the Lord does not intervene to keep Him from the Cross, the anguished prayer that the cup of suffering might be taken from Him goes unanswered, and the cry of dereliction “My God my God why have you forsaken me” gives voice to the hollow despair of human suffering through the ages.
And yet, if we take seriously that Jesus is the Living Bread that came down from heaven, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, we see that paradoxically the Cross is not in fact a contradiction of God’s faithfulness as described in Psalm 34, but is rather the perfect demonstration of that very faithfulness. The faithfulness of God reaches to the lowest point of human life, it reaches to the humiliation, suffering and abandonment of the Cross, it reaches even to death itself. And in this solidarity with suffering humanity, we are saved, we are rescued, from the inside.
O taste and see that the Lord is gracious, blessed are those who trust in Him.
And so we see that the Eucharist is given to us as an efficacious sign of that faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus; an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.
In the Eucharist we are brought to an awesome proximity to that act of self-offering hinted at in today’s gospel, begun at the Last Supper and completed on the Cross; we are brought to an awesome proximity to that self-offering which unites the human and the Divine faithfulness. Here we are brought to the table of the upper room, here we are brought to the very foot of the Cross, here we are brought to that full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.
And in the Eucharist we do not only contemplate but we also participate in the mystery of the Cross. Each Christian life is like a Calvary in miniature; in the Eucharist we are united with Christ, and united with Him in the power of the Holy Spirit we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice, and we are strengthened and enabled to pour ourselves out in the service of God and neighbour.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.