The Bread of Life
During the month of August, the Gospel readings at Sunday Mass will come from Chapter Six of the Gospel of John. Scripture scholars call this chapter the “Bread of Life discourse” because in it Jesus declares “I am the bread of Life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
This is really the invitation of every celebration of Mass – we hear the Word of God proclaimed, we receive our Lord in the Eucharist and we are sent from Mass to bear Christ to the world. As we unfold the Bread of Life discourse, we can think of these next four Sundays as a retreat to ponder the great gift of the real presence of Jesus.
As Catholics we are familiar and even comfortable with receiving the Eucharist, yes it can be hard to explain to others what it means that Christ himself is really present to us. Often, our experience is like the experience of our Lord in today’s Gospel. People were asking for signs so that they could believe in him. It is easy to imagine they wanted proof to take back to their friends and family. But signs and proofs are not the source of faith. Rather, Jesus teaches all that is needed is found in him.
We will hear some of his disciples say at the end of the chapter, “This is a hard saying: who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). How many of us have family and friends who have asked this same question? Perhaps we have even asked it ourselves when presented with a teaching that challenges our way of thinking. We know many people who have walked away from weekly participation at Mass and from active participation in the life of the Church like those disciples who returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Jesus (John 6:66). In my experience, often when pressed to talk more about their belief or lack of belief, they admit they are not really sure who Jesus is or what is really the core teaching of our Catholic faith.
Pope Benedict XVI said, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1). Here he echoes the first Pope – Peter – who when asked if he and the Apostles also wanted to leave answered, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity or doubt – what he teaches us is trustworthy and while we sometimes might experience difficulties, his teaching is good news. He is the “bread of Life.” The Catechism reminds us that “the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed towards the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through Communion. To receive Communion is to receive Christ himself who had offered himself to us” (CCC 1382).
In the spirit of a retreat, we can take the next couple of Sundays to respond to the Lord’s invitation and deepen our love for the Blessed Sacrament. One good practice that increases our appreciation for the Eucharist is the practice of arriving at church early enough to prepare ourselves quietly for the spiritual experience of the liturgy. In prayer, we can ask the Lord to strengthen our own faith and help us to appreciate more deeply the mystery we are invited to enter as we approach the presence of God with us in the Eucharist. These few minutes of quiet preparation have the spiritual effect of helping us make our heart “an avenue for the Lord.”
Jesus is the true bread from heaven who gives life to the world. As we reflect on the extraordinary gift of the Eucharist, both as the re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection and also as our spiritual food, we thank God that such an overwhelmingly generous gift is given to us.