- Introduction: the interweaving of multiple strands
The Eucharist, in New Testament traditions, is a somewhat hazy thing: a mirage that flickers and changes from text to text. The four Gospels don’t quite agree on the details. Scholars suggest that the pattern of biblical evidence indicates a problem needing to be solved, namely that their earliest sources (the traditions of the Jerusalem church) said nothing about any eucharistic aspect of the Last Supper; however, because of the eucharistic practice of the Church in their own period, and the belief that this practice was based on something said by Jesus at the Last Supper, the Gospel writers needed to import a eucharistic aspect into their narrative. Hence, they found four different solutions: inclusion of eucharistic words without instruction (Mark // Matthew); inclusion of a bare minimum of eucharistic words without instruction (Luke, Short Text); inclusion of eucharistic words with instruction (Luke, Long Text); omission of eucharistic material from Last Supper, and inclusion elsewhere (John) (Maccoby: 1991).
Paul, in the absence of clear early church tradition, appeals to direct revelation to clarify words and form (if this is the meaning of 1 Cor 11:23). It is significant that there is no mention of the Eucharist as a practice of the early church in Acts, which, like the Didache, speaks rather of communal meals in which early followers of Jesus ‘broke bread’ (Acts 2:42; 20:7), an act that was the opening of every ceremonial Jewish meal.
Behind the various eucharistic narratives lie the shadows of a number of Hebrew symbols and traditions. The links between the Last Supper and these older traditions are elusive, but evocative of rich meaning. Passover (linked firmly to the Last Supper by Mark and Matthew, less firmly by Luke and John), itself a fusion of two feasts, carries connotations of salvation and a journeying from slavery to new life; it also includes elements of sacrifice. The Bread Offering (thought by many scholars to be closer to the descriptions of Jesus’ actions in the Last Supper than is the Passover) carries nuances of the sacrificial system, which was predicated on God’s actions on behalf of people (expiation of sin), rather than on people’s actions towards God (propitiation of an angry god) (Abba: 1985, 14). The Melchizedek tradition, while not directly connected to the Eucharist in biblical tradition (Hebrews does not mention the Eucharist at all), is connected in later tradition with ecclesiastical unity through taking part in the offering of bread and wine // the true sacrifice of Christ (Aquinas, Summa Theologica Part III, Question 22, Article 6). The offering of gifts to a stranger in the Melchizadek story (Gen 14:18) signifies the larger offering of the land itself, understood as given by God, in an endorsement of God’s promises to Abraham (Manning: 2000, 159).
Alongside these traditions lie the shadows of tensions between priestly and familial spheres. Jewish festival meals, which opened with breaking of bread by the host, were celebrated in the family home; Temple sacrifice was celebrated and controlled by the priest. Various eucharistic traditions appear to lean towards one sphere or the other.
However, there is a congruence in all these various traditions, which rests on the overwhelming, prodigal generosity of God, seen in all eucharistic traditions as absolutely present in the person of Jesus.
Rather than attempt to skip lightly over all of the texts relating to Eucharist, this study will focus on one text, John 6 (the ‘Bread of life’ narrative) as a key to the rich vitality of eucharistic tradition. It is probably the latest biblical writing on the Eucharist, and arguably the richest in symbolism. It subsumes many of the Hebrew traditions and symbols, using them to say something that is at once new, and as old as creation.
2. John 6: Feeding on the Bread of Life
- Word and flesh in the Fourth Gospel.
The theme of incarnation (logos ensarkos, ‘word become flesh’) runs through John’s Gospel from the beginning, as the Word is seen as existing from the beginning. This Word is one whose being has participated in the divine Eternal from before creation; the Word is now seen entering the world in human form at a specific point in history, to communicate the life and love of God.
Sarx (‘flesh’) occurs thirteen times in John, in five different contexts: Prologue (1:13-14); dialogue with Nicodemus (3:6); Bread of life narrative (6:51-56, 63); Tabernacles Discourse (7:38; 8:15); and the Great Prayer (17:2). It provides a structure for the book, and is supported by many other expressions that are drawn from the field of embodiment. Jesus’ ministry manifests throughout the Gospel in ‘signs’ (semeia) and ‘works’ (erga). Most of the ‘signs’ relate to the healing or restoration of the flesh, the deeds of thelogos ensarkos (Lee: 2002, 36): healing the royal official’s son and the disabled man at the Pool (4:46–5:9); feeding the hungry (6:1-15); restoration of sight to the man born blind (9:1-41); raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44). The cleansing of the Temple opposes Jesus’ body (soma), which will rise from the dead and is a pure, acceptable sacrifice, with the building that has up to now revealed God’s glory to the Israelites and has become a place of commercial enterprise, rather than acceptable sacrifice (Chilton: 1994, 40).
It is in the meeting with the Samaritan woman (4:1-39) that Jesus first introduces, then develops, the theme that will be expounded in the Bread of Life narrative. Here, references to Jesus’ own hunger (4:8, 31-34) and thirst (4:7) first emphasise his ensarkos, then move into a deeper layer that discusses the nature of ‘hunger’ and ‘true food’. For Jesus, ‘my food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to accomplish his work’ (4:34).
- The Bread of Life narrative
This central discourse begins with the story of the miraculous feeding (6:1-14). The context is the Passover (v. 4). Jesus himself is the host, who breaks the bread, gives thanks, and distributes it, ‘as much as they wanted’ (v. 11). The feeding is prodigal, enough to fill twelve baskets of left-overs. ‘Twelve’ indicates that there is enough for the scattered tribes of Abraham’s descendants, enough for the disciples and for all disciples, as will become clear in the ensuing discourse. This scene is set to illustrate and give a foretaste of what is yet to come. It is the pinnacle of table fellowship (seen in the Synoptics as meals of the kingdom of God: inclusive and seemingly profligate). While stories of Jesus eating are rarer in John, table fellowship, when it occurs, demonstrates something profound about Jesus as the one who ushers in, in his own body, God’s glory. The wedding at Cana (2:1-12) introduces the theme of ‘new wine’ (and links ‘mother and brothers’ with ‘disciples’: introduction of the eschatological family); Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet (12:1-8) exchanges the perfume of life for the stench of death (and shows a true disciple as one who responds to, and celebrates, Jesus’ life and presence). The final meal (21:9-14), in which Jesus ‘took the bread and gave it to them’ (v. 13) leads into the commissioning of Peter to continue Jesus’ ministry of ‘feeding’.
The discourse that follows the miraculous feeding explicates the meaning of logos ensarkos for the life of the community. The host who blessed and distributed the bread is now revealed to be the true Bread. Believers must feed on this Bread in order to have life. There are four ‘I am’ sayings in this chapter. ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (6:35); ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’ (6:41, in a complaint by ‘the Jews’, who contrast this claim with the signs of Jesus’ earthliness: ‘son of Joseph’); ‘I am the bread of life’ (6:48, contrasting miraculous feeding in the past, with the present miraculous feeding); and finally, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh’ (6:51). This final ‘I am’ summarises, and makes explicit, all that has gone before. The Jesus who is ‘son of Joseph’ is also, paradoxically, ‘the Bread that has come down from heaven’. Miraculous feeding in the past kept life going for a while, but not forever. This feeding leads to eternal life. The addition of ‘blood’ in the following verses (four times) gives this a clear eucharistic significance; those who eat and drink the flesh and blood of Jesus ‘abide in me, and I in them’. The Word made flesh draws into itself those who are willing to partake of this flesh. Sarx has been expanded to include eschatological life for the community of faith.
This discourse points us back to the discussion with Nicodemus in ch. 3. Just as birth and food are necessary for physical life, so the symbolism drawn from these physical elements draws us beyond, into the theological reality of new life. It is through the Spirit that eschatological life is created and sustained. ‘Flesh’ of itself has no power to give eternal life (6:63). Those who turn away at the offensiveness of this teaching have failed to see the Spirit behind the flesh:
In terms of the theory of metaphor, we have here the explication of the ‘is not’ dimension: flesh is not literally to be consumed in a cannibalistic way. The metaphorical ‘is not’ falls away to allow the ‘is’ dimension to unfold. It is the ‘flesh’ of the risen Lord that gives life through the transfiguring presence of the Spirit. (Lee: 2002, 41)
John’s Gospel sets this prodigal gift in a context of cosmic mission. ‘All things came into being through him’ (1:3); he is the light ‘of all people’ (1:4); God so loved ‘the world’ so that ‘everyone who believes in him’ may have eternal life (3:16); the Bread of life has come down from heaven to give life ‘to the world’ (6:33). In John’s account of the Last Supper (which contains no eucharistic words), Jesus reveals himself as the Way to the Father (14:6), and the Vine in whom believers abide (15:5). The unity between God, Jesus, the disciples, and all who will be drawn into divine community (‘the world’, 17:23) rests on the earlier Bread of life discourse in that Jesus, logos ensarkos, has been shown to be the flesh that reveals the divine and joins the human to the divine in eschatological community. If the flesh and blood of Jesus is necessary for eternal life, the hope is that all will come to eternal life through this flesh and blood.
- Prodigal Gift and the wider tradition
Reading ‘backwards’ from John 6 throws brighter light on the various strands underlying eucharistic tradition. The spheres of Temple and family come together in the body of Christ: divine glory is revealed through Jesus, as it has been through the temple in the past; sacrifice (God’s gracious gift of expiation) has been taken out of the hands of the few and has been made for all; the meal, at which Christ is the host, includes all those who are willing to eat (that is, become one with) the One who is Bread from heaven, through the power of the Spirit. Passover, itself a salvific feeding, is now a new meal with all who are brought into the community of ‘I and the Father’. The hope of this meal is for ‘the world’, resonating with the Lukan tradition of hospitality in which the Stranger, the Other, is revealed as Christ in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30-31).
The light shone by this narrative on the underlying traditions and symbols (Passover, sacrifice, festival meal, hospitality to strangers) brings about a ‘seismic displacement of meaning’ (Kelly & Moloney: 2003, 166):
…the fullness of a gift that is the truth (1:14) has broken open the range of human experience to the dimensions of the ‘opened heaven’ (1:51). The truth of God’s love occurs as an upheaval in the previously imagined world. The varied responses – of incomprehension, acceptance, or scandalized rejection – make the words of the poet Paul Celan especially apposite: “A Rumbling: truth
itself has appeared
in the very thick of their
(Paul Celan, Poems, trans. M. Hamburger, Manchester: Carcanet, 1980; in Kelly & Moloney: 2003, 168)
Abba, Raymond, “The Jewish background of the Christian Eucharist”, in R. Gribben (ed), Communion in Australian Churches, Melbourne: JBCE, 1985, pp. 12-17
Chilton, Bruce, “The Eucharist: exploring its origins”, Bible Review Dec (1994) 37-43
Douglas, Mary, “The Eucharist: its continuity with the Bread Sacrifice of Leviticus”, Modern Theology 15:2 (April 1999) 209-224
Kelly, Anthony J, C.SS.R, & Moloney, Francis J, S.D.B, Experiencing God in the Gospel of John, New York/Mahwah: Paulist, 2003
Lang, Bernhard, “The Eucharist: a sacrificial formula preserved”, Bible Review Dec (1994) 44-49
Lee, Dorothy, Flesh and Glory, New York: Crossroad, 2002
Maccoby, Hyam, “Paul and the Eucharist”, New Testament Studies 37 (1991) 247-69
Manning, Philip, “Melchizadek’s Eucharist”, Expository Times 3:5 (2000) 158-160