Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For 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. (Jn 6:53-56)
The sixth chapter of John's Gospel is arguably the strongest text in favor of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. Its meaning has been argued for centuries, so no need to repeat the argument. Let's just look at some points.
Chapter six includes three narratives:
These three have a structural significance. As I said elsewhere, the miracle of Jesus walking on water goes beyond a simple magician’s trick. For the ancient Jewish reader, Jesus did something no magician could do (and they believed in magic), something no human, however powerful, could do. He proved Himself to be not a sorcerer and not a prophet, but the Living God Himself, who “moved over the face of the deep” at the dawn of creation. That primordial movement of God upon the deep created order out of chaos; took that which was before and shaped it into something new – the seven day ordering of creation. Simply put, God moving on the waters was a turning point, a dividing line between what was before and what came after. A transformation occurred, from chaos to cosmos, from a lesser thing to a greater thing. Here, in John 6, Jesus did the same; he took that which was before – bread, even miraculously multiplied bread – and transformed it into something new: Himself – the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The interval between old and new is, again, divided by God moving upon the face of the deep.
The Bread of Life discourse begins on a benign note; the people who saw His miracle of the loaves have followed Jesus around the lake because they want more. There is much talk of believing in Jesus and many reformed Christians believe this discourse to be essentially symbolic, where “eating the bread of life” is symbolic language for believing in Jesus. But Catholics and Orthodox see something else. The topic of belief arises when the people ask Him what they must “do to do the works of God.” They are focused on their own actions. Jesus replies that the key work is to believe in Him. This is, perhaps, a bit unsettling to the crowd, because “the works of God” they must do is to believe in Jesus; it’s not some moral work or some legal or ceremonial work – it’s to believe that Jesus is God. They then ask for a sign, a work from Jesus such that they might believe in Him; note that the preceding day they witnessed Jesus multiplying the loaves, so they’ve already seen a miracle (also note: only a few saw Jesus walk on water). Since they saw the miracle of the loaves, they continue with that subject and reference the manna from heaven during Moses’ day as an acceptable sign. Jesus replies that God is sending a new kind of bread from heaven, which gives life, that is, eternal life. When they ask Him for it, he reveals that He Himself is this bread of life; if they believe in Him, they will have eternal life.
Now the discourse turns sour. His listeners are now incredulous, as it implies that Jesus came down from heaven, like the manna; it also implies that Jesus will not give them the miraculous sign they request. Jesus again explains that those who believe have eternal life, in contrast to those in Moses’ day who ate the manna, yet died. Then he makes a shocking statement: the bread of life is His flesh. Now His listeners become more incredulous. Rather than calm their concerns regarding this image of cannibalism, Jesus turns to even more literal language and adds that His blood is to be drank as well.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For 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.” (Jn 6:53-56)
John employs two different words for “eat.” At first he uses phago, which is a gentle word that can be rendered in English as consume, eat. But in vs 54, he uses the Greek word trogo, which means gnaw or chew. It is remarkably literal in the meaning it conveys. We assume that John employs this harsh sounding word for a purpose, and the likely purpose is to avoid misinterpreting His meaning as symbolism.
Then we hear of some of Jesus’ own disciples turning away from Him; they stopped following Him because they were offended by this directive to gnaw on His flesh and drink His blood, two things utterly abhorrent to any Jew. The twelve Apostles stayed with Him, though.
Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." (Jn 6:60-69)
Jesus’ words, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” are used by some Christians as proof that Jesus spoke symbolically. They claim Jesus clarified that His flesh is of no avail, therefore He was not speaking literally; He was speaking spiritually or symbolically. Yet many of His disciples still left; something in this discourse drove them away.
The simple Catholic/Orthodox response is that Jesus did not say, “My flesh is of no avail.” He said, “The flesh is of no avail.” The phrase the flesh is used in several places in the NT as a reference to human nature without grace, without the Spirit of God working within us. Using this common understanding of the phrase the flesh, we understand Jesus stated that the doctrine He spoke can only be understood in the light of grace, guided by the working of the Spirit within us. The doctrine of the Eucharist can only be believed through grace, which is a gift of the Spirit. Without such a spiritual approach to Jesus’ words, it sounds like we are to be cannibals, eating Jesus’ actual arms & legs; this is the understanding if one approaches His words in the flesh, as did these disciples. But, to do “the works of God,” as these disciples originally asked, we must allow the Spirit to do His works within us, to be a child of grace; God asks of us no other works. Grace is the life of the Spirit within us, and grace is received through the sacraments, chief among them, the sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus has answered their question clearly; those who understood His words “in the Spirit” remained with Him and ultimately encountered Jesus in the Eucharist, while those who understood His words “in the flesh” left Him.
Of interest is that Jesus speaks to His incredulous followers: “What if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” This phrase is deeply meaningful; it refers to “The Son of Man” prophecy from the prophet Daniel.
As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened… I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan 7:9-14)
The context of Dan 7 is an apocryphal vision of various creatures representing various prophesies of future empires to come, a final beast representing Rome that would be defeated by this son of man. The kingdom of this son of man would be an everlasting kingdom. Christians recognize the fulfillment of this prophecy in Christ and His Church, which saw the end of the Roman Empire and has existed as Christ’s kingdom ever since. But, ignoring our 21st century hindsight, consider what Jesus was saying in His day, that He was this Son of Man and that He would ascend to “where He was before” – before the throne of the Most High God, where He would usher in the everlasting kingdom of God. This is perhaps just as difficult to believe as was the gnawing of His flesh and drinking of His blood.
Those who stayed with Jesus – His Apostles – actually saw this prophecy fulfilled, because they believed Jesus.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Mt 28:16-20)
And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:9)
Daniel prophesied that the Son of Man would come before the Father’s throne on a cloud; so Jesus ascended to heaven, to the Father’s throne, on a cloud, according to Acts. At that time, Jesus told them that all authority had been given to Him, even as Daniel prophesied that such would be given to the son of man. What is this “authority,” this “dominion” given Him? Jesus clarifies to His Apostles: He delegates His authority to them, to make disciples, baptize and teach. This is the authority and power of God: the transformation of us by Truth and Sacrament. Thanks be to God for the sacraments, especially for the sacrament of Holy Communion, the bread of eternal life.