The Gospel selection this morning is part of a longer and very important chapter in Saint John’s Gospel. I would invite you to go home and read Saint John’s 6th chapter for yourself, from your Bible, sometime this week. For the moment I will tell you that the story starts out with our Lord, who has just returned from Jerusalem, preaching on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, where it is called the “Sea of Tiberias,” and there, also, is a city of Tiberias, in honor of the Roman Emperor.
Saint John tells us that it was just before “the Passover, the feast of the Jews.” Indeed, the Passover is not just “a feast,” but “the feast of the Jews.” And, with the coming of Christ, it would have an effect of supreme importance on the Christians, who would become the new “people of God.” You may know that the Passover originated as the Jewish people were trying to escape from slavery in Egypt. God sent a number of plagues on the land in order to convince the Pharao to let His people go—the last plague would bring the death of every “first born” child in Egypt. In order to spare the first born of His own people, God directed them to sacrifice a lamb—one for each family or two—and paint the blood of the lamb over the doorways of their homes. The lambs were to be roasted that night by the fire, together with unleavened bread (there was no time for bread to rise); they were to have their shoes on, and their walking sticks in their hands; for the Passover was to be a sign of great haste to escape the bondage of slavery.
The Presence of God would lead the chosen people forth from bondage—a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Presence of God that would ultimately reside in the Temple until the crucifixion of Christ.
Unleavened bread of pure wheat flour would henceforth be an important commodity in Jewish worship. It was the bread of the Passover, and it was the bread that would be offered daily before the Presence of God in the desert, and later in the Temple. Lacking yeast, it was a symbol of purity and incorruption. In many ways, it also resembled the “manna” or “bread from heaven” that God rained down on His people six days out of seven as they trekked through the desert for forty years.
When our Lord multiplied the loaves to feed the large crowd who gathered to hear Him preach, it must have seemed like much more than one of His normal miracles, for the barley loaves and fish coming out of nowhere must have reminded them of their ancestors’ trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. Indeed, this morning’s reading ends with the idea that his listeners were so impressed that they wanted to force Him to become their king.
We can only speculate, but it seems that our Lord was trying to prepare His followers for the idea of receiving Him in Holy Communion. These were only barley loaves, but the demonstration of the power of God to make five loaves present to five thousand people would serve to enable us to understand how His Eucharistic Presence could exist on our own altar, and in the many tabernacles of the world. Christ who fed the multitudes with the poor man’s barley, also feeds His followers with His own Presence under the appearance of a wafer of fine wheat.
When you read the rest of the chapter, you will find that the Apostles started toward the west side of the Sea in their boat, headed for Capharnaum, and that our Lord followed them by walking upon the water—another miraculous demonstration of divine power.
The following day, the people from Tiberias came in boats looking for Jesus—perhaps still wanting to make Him king; perhaps hoping to be fed once again. But our Lord tells them that they should “not labor for food that perishes, but for that which endures unto live everlasting, which the Son of man will give you ... this is the work of God: that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”
They reminded Jesus that their forefathers had seen a sign from God—the manna coming down from heaven, “bread from heaven”—what sign, they asked, would Jesus give them? Jesus answer was that Moses didn’t really give their ancestors heavenly bread. Manna is actually a natural phenomenon—you can find it yourself at times in the Sinai desert—the miracle was in God making it available each day as it was needed. The true “bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” To which the crowd replied “Lord, give us always this bread!”
Jesus’ answer was, perhaps, the most unsettling reply they had ever heard: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall not hunger; he who believes in Me shall never thirst. I have come down from heaven to do the will of the Father, who sent Me.”
“The Jews, therefore, murmured about Him, because He had said: ‘I am the bread that has come down from heaven.’” Wasn’t this Man the son of Joseph and Mary; two normal people whom many of them knew?
The answer, again, was disconcerting: “Your fathers ate manna in the desert, and have died ... I am the living bread that has come down from heaven ... the bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world.” “My flesh”? How can that be?! the Jews argued amongst themselves: “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?!”
But our Lord did not back down. Instead, he told them: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day. My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood, abides in Me, and I in him.”
Now, Saint John tells us that many of the people in the crowd, even though they had seen or heard about the miracle of the loaves, were scandalized by this notion: “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to this?” The drinking of all blood is forbidden by the Law of Moses—and certainly that of a human being—and even if it were not, how could He possibly do this?!?
Many of the people who had been His followers left Him because of their inability to believe this “hard saying.” “From this time, many of His disciples turned back and no longer went about with Him.”
The fact that He did not call them back—the fact that He did not say to them that they misunderstood Him—the fact that He did not say to them “Oh, I was just speaking about symbols that would represent My body and blood”—the fact that He did not back down is proof positive that Jesus really and truly intended to give us His actual body and blood when He established the Blessed Sacrament one year later at the Passover seder we know as the Last Supper. He certainly would not have given up all those souls over a mistake if it had been one.
Because of this sermon of Jesus at the Passover, when we read the account of the Eucharist in the Bible, or hear it at Mass, we know that “This is My body” and “This is My blood...” mean precisely what they say. The Presence of Jesus Christ under the appearances of wheaten bread is real, not symbolic!
The Presence of God led His chosen people out of bondage in Egypt, and dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. God’s people sacrificed lambs before Him and laid out offerings of unleavened bread before the divine Presence. Today, we are God’s chosen people, led out of the bondage of sin by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the Cross; and we receive the very same Presence of God, under the appearance of unleavened bread, in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.