Happy Thanksgiving week to my friends in the United States. I have so much to be thankful for this year: my husband, my daughters, a healthy child on the way, our home…the list is lengthy. This is my first Thanksgiving since our Catholic conversion and I’m so especially thankful this year for my place in the Church. Before the craziness of the day gets underway, I’ll begin my day by going to mass and receiving Jesus. I have more to be thankful for than ever in my life!
Thanksgiving is not a Church holiday, but Catholic Christians can incorporate the meaning of the holiday with the meaning of what we most celebrate: the Eucharist. “Eucharist” is a Greek word (in English, eucharistia) that actually means “thanksgiving.” The argument could be made that Catholics celebrate a form of Thanksgiving every day. Pretty cool.
I’ll be using this week as a launching point for a post series I’ve had in the works for awhile. I hope to provide a faithful explanation of Eucharistic theology with a focus on the sixth chapter of John. I’ll be using the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, Second Edition RSV. Much of what I’ll post will come from the study helps section of this most incredible learning tool. I’ll also address counter-arguments found in the MacArthur Study Bible, a useful volume from one Protestant perspective. I rarely read one without the other as I love to compare and contrast the interpretations. My intention is to stick to a “scripture alone” approach in this particular post series. As always, what I write remains subject to the authority of the Church. If anything I say on this matter is incorrect or misstated in any way, I will gladly stand corrected. Without further adieu, part one!
To begin, I’d like to take a look at what is known as the “bread of life discourse.” It is found most specifically in John 6:35-58. In this passage, Jesus makes some claims about himself that cause suspicion and even anger. Theologians today argue among themselves as to whether Christ is speaking metaphorically or in sacramental terms. Is this a simple invitation to faith, or is Christ really saying that he is substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine? As a prospective Catholic convert, I assumed that Protestants were of the former opinion and Catholics were of the latter. My assumptions were not completely correct. While Protestants do hold to a metaphoric interpretation, Catholics believe that the bread of life discourse has both a metaphoric application and a sacramental one. Ah, the good old “both/and.” As has been the case so many times, the Catholic interpretation was a mere step beyond what I already believed to be true.
Catholics believe that the bread of life discourse can be neatly divided into two parts: verses 35-47 and verses 48-58. To help illustrate this, I’ve separated the passage into two columns as a visual aid. You may click the image to enlarge the text:
I’d never noticed the symmetrical division of the sermon into these two parts. Once I did, I couldn’t believe I’d never spotted these most natural halves of text before.
Take a look at the passage in the first column. It begins with “I am the bread of life.” What follows is a series of invitations to believe in Jesus for salvation. The metaphoric nature of this first section of the passage is so obvious that the Jews don’t even bother asking Jesus why he calls himself bread – they understand its a metaphor at this point. Instead, they ask, “How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus was speaking metaphorically in this section of the passage. Jesus knew it, the Jews knew it, the Apostle John knew it when he penned the gospel , and Catholics know it today.
The second half of the sermon likewise begins with “I am the bread of life.” This is followed by a series of invitations to eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood. As the metaphorical import was so obvious to the Jews in the first half of the sermon, the literal import is now obvious too, so obvious that the Jews ask aloud, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” You can almost hear the dismay in their voices. Jesus does not soften his rhetoric even a little. Instead, he bolsters his words with even more emphasis on the literal, a point that causes many of his disciples to abandon him just a few verses later.
To conclude, Catholics note the obvious symmetrical division in the bread of life discourse. This division gives shape to an understanding of Jesus’ words that are both metaphorical and sacramental. To quote the commentary craftsmanship of Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, “If eating is believing in 6:35-47, then believing leads to eating in 6:48-58.”
In part two of this post series, I will further address the response of Christ in the second half of the passage as well as reactions from those who heard his words. To the careful reader, what happens after the bread of life discourse is as equally convicting as the sermon itself.