John’s Gospel opens with the dramatic and theologically significant Prologue in which the readers are introduced to the Incarnation of the Divine LOGOS, the Word of God. In the person of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Blessed Trinity has become a man who walked among us and shared fully in our humanity. This undercurrent of the Incarnation teaching comes through different aspects of the Gospel and is certainly the backdrop for the dialogue between Jesus and the crowd in this weekend’s Gospel.
There are four distinct places where we hear the expression “come down from heaven.” From the outset, this teaching is challenging to the crowd. If Jesus has come down from heaven, then he is not of this world, but they wonder how that can be. Someone coming down from heaven is not a feature of Jewish theology. There is no long-standing tradition of incarnation in Judaism. And while some of the Jews believed in angels, Jesus does not seem to be suggesting that he is one of them.
The crowd turns quickly to what they seem to know. They are familiar with Jesus and his family. And being they “know” his background, they are immediately skeptical about his teaching. Jesus is identified here as the son of Joseph. They could not know, nor can they imagine, that Jesus is the Incarnation of the Word of God.
But Jesus has come down from heaven, and his teaching adds an even richer understanding to the Incarnation. What begins to unfold is the necessary and complete relationship between the Incarnation and the Eucharist.
Jesus identifies himself not only as having come down from heaven, but as bread that has come down from heaven.
The relationship between word and bread is essential in the Old Testament. Moses taught that we do not live by bread alone, but by the Word that comes forth from God, and Jesus repeats this teaching in the Matthew and Luke accounts of the temptation in the desert after his Baptism. So there is this necessary relationship: Jesus is the Word and Jesus is the Bread that has come down from heaven.
When the people thought of bread from heaven, they remember the manna from heaven that fed their ancestors in the desert. This was no ordinary bread, this was a substance that God created and gave to them for only as long as they needed it. It was a food that sustained them in this life, but it offered them no further promise or hope. The food got them to the Promised Land.
Jesus reminds them that even though their ancestors ate manna in the desert, they still died. It was, in the end, just food. Jesus is talking about the bread that gives eternal life: “I am the bread of life.”
If Jesus was just talking about bread in a metaphorical sense – as Moses equates the Word and Bread – then the teaching of Jesus could be seen as the giving of a new law or as prophetic oracles. They people seek more than just another prophet. Yet Jesus takes the conversation in two new directions.
First he again calls God his father. In Chapter 5, Jesus spoke of God as his father and related his work – the signs he performs – with those of God. Then then crowd gathered there sought to stone him to death for blasphemy. Jesus similarly teaches this assembled crowd that he does the work of God, his father. This would again raise the ire of the crowd. But then Jesus also tells them that his flesh is the bread. As we will see this teaching will shake the crowd to its very core.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.