Editorial by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P.
During the first four Sundays of this month, we will continue to hear proclaimed at Mass the great Bread of Life Discourse from the Gospel of John (Jn 6:24-69).
Jesus here teaches in a deliberately provocative manner in order to break through our resistance so that nothing will hold us back from embracing the all-consuming love of Jesus Christ for us. Which starts with our consuming him.
Hungry for God
Jesus declares, The work of God [is] that you believe in the one [God] sent…. I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst (Jn 6:29, 35). The Lord addresses the most primal of human needs and a problem that dates back to Adam. The theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his book For the Life of the World, observes, “The ‘original sin’ is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for him and for him alone.”
With the crowd still wonderstruck by the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus takes on their deeper longing. “God acted,” Schmemann writes, “so that man might understand who God really was and where his hunger had been driving him. Christ is our bread—because from the very beginning all our hunger was a hunger for him.”
Belief is being known
What prompted Adam and Eve to crave the forbidden fruit of Eden was a failure of belief. As Saint Thomas Aquinas explains it, authentic belief means “believing with a faith made living by love, which not only perfects the intellect but the affections as well (for we do not tend to the things we believe in unless we love them).” The seduction of the serpent poisoned our first parents’ affection for God. Jesus, in the Bread of Life Discourse, stands before the world to woo us back.
Why would we ever accede to the overtly preposterous claim that Jesus is the Bread of Life? Because, as Pope Benedict XVI told us, “belief is certainty that God has shown himself and has opened up for us the view of truth itself. The assent of belief comes, not through the degree of evidence bringing the process of thought to its conclusion, but by an act of will—a certain inner closeness, a kind of love.”
Jesus in effect promises, “I am the Bread of Life for you!” So, continued Pope Benedict, “in this sense the ‘will’ always somehow precedes the perception. We are able to give the assent of faith because the will—the heart—has been touched by God, ‘affected’ by him. Through being touched in this way, the will knows that even what is still not ‘clear’ to the reason is true.”
Father Robert Barron stresses this when he remarks that to believe “signals not so much a way of knowing as of being known. To have faith is to permit the divine energy to reign at all levels of one’s being.” God insists that knowledge of him comes “not through grasping but through
being grasped.” Or as Monsignor Romano Guardini put it, “Believing is a process which takes hold of our being, the invasion of divine love or of divine life from which a new existence comes to be.”
Eating and hope
Which is why Jesus goes on, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man…you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh…has eternal life (Jn 6:53-54). Just as God ordered the first man and woman not to eat a certain food, God now issues a command to eat that seems even more impossible to heed.
Schmemann comments that, by the Fall, “man made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into ‘life in God.’” We need, then, a way back to spiritual life. It requires spiritual food: “Spiritual food is necessary for the spiritual life to such an extent that without it the spiritual life cannot be sustained” (Aquinas).
But the disorder wrought by original sin makes us as contrary and cynical as those who grumble against Jesus. “The Son of Man gives this food in a spiritual way,” says Aquinas, “because human nature, weakened by sin, found spiritual food distasteful, and was not able to take in its spirituality. Thus it was necessary for the Son of Man to assume flesh and nourish us with it.”
If by faith we permit our mind to be fixed on spiritual things, then in our eating of the Bread of Life we will possess “eternal life in its cause and in hope” (Aquinas). “Jesus says: I am the food of the great; grow and you will eat me. But you will not change me into yourself, as you do bodily food, but you will be changed into me” (Saint Augustine).