Homily for May 4th, 2017: John 6:44-51.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat and not die.” Jesus is speaking to his fellow Jews. So to understand what he is saying, we must start with the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.
The rabbis often spoke of the manna which nourished God’s people during their desert wanderings under Moses as God’s word or instruction. Amos, the first of
prophets to write down his message (earlier prophets spoke orally only) writes
about a famine coming on the land, because of the people’s unfaithfulness: “not
a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord”
(8:11f). The theme of bread as God’s word is frequent in the so-called Wisdom
books of the Old Testament. In the book Sirach, for instance, we read: “He who
fears the Lord … will come to wisdom … She will nourish him with the bread of
understanding . . .” (15:1 & 3). Israel
This is the background for Jesus’ astonishing claim: “I am the bread of life … the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus’ words are real nourishment. That is why the two disciples who encountered the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus could say, after Jesus had made himself known in “the breaking of the bread” (the oldest term for the Eucharist): “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
All Catholics know that Jesus comes to us in Holy Communion. Many still do not realize that he comes to us equally in what the second Vatican Council called “the table of the word.” The rediscovery of that term, which had lain, largely forgotten, in the Church’s attic for centuries, was one of the Council’s great gifts to us. “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerates the body of the Lord,” the Council said, “insofar as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ” (Verbum Dei, 21). For a balanced spiritual diet, we must be nourished by both.