Cracking the mystery of the Incarnation is a fool’s errand. Even different starting places for the attempt require us to rethink so much. Matthew and Luke suggest that the history of the Son begins with the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary. After Jesus’ earthly ministry, he then went to the right hand of the Father and is awaiting the final Day of Judgment. John, on the other hand, takes us to the perspective of the eternal Word, through whom the universe was created. Here the Son’s history is that he enjoyed intimacy with the Father from eternity and then came to earth from his glorious existence. And his presence already conditions judgment (9:39). He alludes to this heavenly history in our Gospel reading today. We continue to follow the Bread of Life Discourse that we started last week. “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus tells the crowd. As is typical in John, the listeners go for the surface understanding and miss the spiritual depth he intends. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” they ask.
Recall that in last week’s Gospel the crowd wanted a sign from Jesus and reminded him that Moses fed them manna from heaven. Jesus now tells them: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died.... I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” The manna, at best, prefigured Jesus, the true bread. While manna was considered bread from heaven (Ex 16:4), it could do no more than hold off starvation. But this living bread brings eternal life.
The Gospel reading ends with what appears to be a terrible mixture of metaphors: “The bread I give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Jesus’ crucified body is bread? It is hard to imagine how Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross actually feeds us. This insight is unique to John’s Gospel, as is the whole sense of the cross. In contrast to the synoptic Gospels, the cross in John is a place of glory for Jesus (17:1) and a place where he reveals the divine most clearly (8:28). Most important, it is on the cross that Jesus will draw all people to himself (12:33).
None of this sounds like standard feeding, but collectively the self-offering of Jesus becomes the context and even the content of our communion with God and one another. Paul thinks so too. In today’s second reading, from the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul urges the community to deeper communion. Earlier he exhorted them to maintain their unity by recognizing they had “one body and one spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (4:3–5). In today’s reading, Paul continues to encourage spiritually skillful behavior. The section ends with a plea to “live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.”
So the communion that we have with God in Christ’s self-offering is the same communion we have with one another when we live in self-offering love, for it is all of a piece. Paul makes this utterly clear: we are the body of Christ who dwells in us (Eph 1:22–23; 3:17; 4:12). In associating the cross with our mutual communion, Paul will even say that what divided the church (Jews and Gentiles) was nailed to the cross: “For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity through his flesh...that he might create in himself one new person...and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it” (Eph 2:14–16).
Think about it: the cross is not only the place where the ultimate sin offering was made (as if that were not enough). It is far more. The cross calls us; it draws us. We find the Father through the cross. We encounter the Son’s glory on the cross. We discover love by the cross. We find each other in the cross. In short, the cross is a place of communion. And there we are well fed.