Jesus is Wisdom in the flesh. In the wisdom books of the Old Testament, God was understood as having created through Wisdom, who existed with God from the beginning of time (Prv 8:22 ff; Wis 9:9). Wisdom pitched her tent among us as the voice of the Lord and the source of life (Sir 24:4-8; Prv 2:6; 3:18). John’s Gospel identifies Jesus with all of this.
In the first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a grande dame who invites any and all to her banquet, a great feast where she offers the rich fare and choice wines of true insight. “Let whoever is simple turn in here…. Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live.”
Wisdom’s banquet serves as a background to Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life, which we have been hearing proclaimed these past three Sundays. Jesus assures his listeners that “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (6:35). Two columns ago I pointed out the imperative of making a choice for Jesus and clinging to him. Last week we experienced Jesus inviting us to communion with him in his self-offering: “The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world” (6:51).
In today’s Gospel reading, from the final portion of the discourse, Jesus’ words become positively shocking: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you…. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Such a proclamation seems scandalous. For Jews the consumption of any blood was forbidden (Gn 9:4; Lv 17:14) and the use of the term flesh (sarx, “meat”) is particularly vulgar.
Jesus’ teaching created both confusion and disgust in his listeners. Understanding his words on a superficial level, they imagine him to be calling for cannibalism, with himself as the victim. Yet there is something quite literal in his intention, even as it is also symbolic. He really meant it. Jesus really is Wisdom’s true divine feast.
Just as Jesus cannot be understood outside of the Old Testament context, so too he cannot be understood outside of our ecclesial context. This is obviously a eucharistic discourse. By viewing Jesus’ words through this ecclesial lens, we see how he can be both symbolic and literal, for here the symbols of bread and wine carry the objective reality with them. In this, the climax of his discourse, Jesus identifies the eucharistic elements with himself.
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to associate the first part of the discourse (on the 18th Sunday) with the Liturgy of the Word, the second part (19th Sunday) with the sacrifice of the Mass and today’s with Communion. A decade after John’s Gospel was written, the great bishop and martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch criticized those who “abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” For Ignatius, the Eucharist was “the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take...to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Smy. 6; Eph 20)
Jesus is the bread of life. We feed on his life-giving word of wisdom that we may see as he sees. We feed on his self-offering, from the Incarnation to Calvary, for it brings us to communion with the Father and with one another. And we feed on his flesh and blood that we may be transformed by what we consume. It is difficult to talk about the Eucharist because it represents so many layers of profound truths, each layer heavy in symbol and metaphor. No wonder Jesus’ listeners were confused.
I even see confusion in the church today. This is unfortunate, for the profundity of the Eucharist and its transformative possibilities cannot be overplayed. The Second Vatican Council describes the Eucharist elegantly: “A sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” No. 47).