By: Marilena Berardinelli
In today’s Gospel reading the very first words Jesus speaks are “I am”. Seven times, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus begin a declarative statement about himself using these words: I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the true vine, and today’s statement, I am the living bread.
Each time Jesus professes “I am” he is purposefully igniting the imagination of his Jewish audience to connect his words to their personal encounter with God. In the exchange found in the book of Exodus, at the foot of the burning bush, Moses asks God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name? what shall I say to them? God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” Thus, you shall say to the Israelites “I am has sent me to you.” Thus, in speaking the words “I am” Jesus is unequivocally establishing that he is no other than God.
The latter half of each of the “I am” statements, Jesus (who is God) speaks about who God is; each of the seven statement reveals a different aspect of God and in so doing draws us nearer and deeper into the mystery of God.
I am the light of the world: Speaks to of us a God that asks us to remain in God’s light, while living in a world often lost in darkness.
I am the Good Shepherd: Invites us to remain with a caring God that unlike the world, knows us personally by name.
Today’s Gospel shares the first of Jesus’ I am statements: “I am the living bread; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Jesus makes this declarative statement after his recent feeding of the five thousand, when he took five pieces of bread and two fishes and multiplied them to feed the large crowd. Jesus first met the crowds most basic need; their physical hunger. Jesus now meets an even deeper need; offering those gathered a way to not only remain in the presence of the living God (like Moses did before at the burning bush), but to have the living God remain and dwell within them.
To help his audience understand this invitation, Jesus again roots himself in the very experience of the Jewish people. Jesus in using the language of bread is reminding the Jews of their exodus from Egypt. After Moses led them safely across the Red Sea, the Israelites complained against Moses: “If we only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out of the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” In response to the people’s complaint the Lord God rained bread from heaven (which the Israelites called manna) and each day the people went out and gathered enough for that day.
Jesus takes this story, imprinted on the very hearts of the Jewish people, and explains the bread in the wilderness of the Exodus as only a temporary provision, and he points to himself, his flesh, as the true and eternal bread from heaven.
Jesus was not speaking in metaphors, nor did those listening to him think he was speaking in metaphors. We know this, because a few verses past today’s gospel the evangelist writes: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Because of this [teaching] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him” (John 6: 60, 66).
The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke reiterate this truth at the last supper. While eating the Passover meal, Jesus took a loaf of bread and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.’
For those of us in the Archdiocese of Toronto, our forced fast from the Eucharist- source and summit of the Christian life, began exactly 90 days ago today. As we return with perhaps an even deeper hunger to communion with the “real presence”, we must ask ourselves what benefits or difference the body and blood of Christ brings to those who receive them?”
Thomas Aquinas, a thirteen century Dominican priest and Doctor of the church wrote: “Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist – but his presence is not an end in itself; it is intended to have a transforming effect on the believer. The intended function or final effect of the Eucharist is the union of the members of the church (considered as Christ’s mystical body) with Christ (their head) and with each other…”
Participation in the Eucharist is therefore the place where we remain with Jesus most intimately, but it is an encounter which is then to birth a new communion; a communion with the mystical body of Christ. If as Aquinas wrote, we do not live the transformative effect of the Eucharist in the mystical body of Christ then our Eucharistic experience is incomplete.
This imagery of the “body of Christ”, found in the letters of St. Paul, is then necessary to our understanding of being a Eucharistic people. As the human body has many parts- so does the body of Christ and we know when a part of our own bodies does not function properly, our whole body is affected. When one part of the body is deprived of oxygen, when one part of the body can’t breathe, the entire body suffers.
To avoid division in the body, Paul exhorted members to “have equal concern for each other,” meaning concrete action resulting in the care of the poor, the sick, the widowed and for us today that means preferential concern for the racialized, Canada’s indigenous people and the most vulnerable in our community to the effects of the coronavirus.
Lastly, Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ reminds us of the communal rather than the individual nature of this mystical body. In this second phase of the pandemic, the responsibility to safely open the doors of our church doesn’t lie with one individual. The ability at this time in history to be in a church, in the “real presence” of Jesus, to partake in the body and blood of our Lord and to do so in the company of the body of Christ, is a collective effort. Our entire community is called to contribute according to our gifts and skills so that each of us serves the mystical body of Christ. Like the signs across our city remind us, since “we are all in this together”, we must act together.
Today’s Solemnity of the body and blood of Christ invites us to live this imitate link between the body and blood of the Christ present in the Eucharist and the people of God as the body of Christ, so that by remaining in relationship with and partaking of the living bread, can we then more fully become the body of Christ and as such living tabernacles in the world.