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The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

The Scandal of John 6

May 10, 2023


The following piece is an excerpt from This Is My Body by Bishop Robert Barron (Word on Fire Publishing), highlighting a section from pp. 71-77.

All four Gospels have an account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. St. John’s version of this story can be found at the beginning of the sixth chapter of his Gospel. In his telling, immediately after performing this miracle, Jesus fled to a mountain and then crossed the Sea of Galilee, pursued by a crowd eager to see more wonders and to make the wonder-worker into a king. They finally tracked him down in the synagogue in the lakeside town of Capernaum, and there, a remarkable dialogue ensued. In many ways, the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence flows from and continually returns to this conversation. Thus, we must attend to it with particular care.

When they asked Jesus how he had gotten there ahead of them, the Lord chided them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:26–27). Ordinary bread satisfies only physical longing, and it does so in a transient way: one eats and one must soon eat again. But the heavenly bread, Jesus implies, satisfies the deepest longing of the heart, and does so by adapting the one who eats it to eternal life. The Church Fathers loved to ruminate on this theme of divinization through the Eucharist, the process by which the consumption of the bread of life readies one for life in the eternal dimension. In the versions of the Lord’s prayer found in the synoptic Gospels, we find the phrase ton arton . . . ton epiousion, usually rendered as “daily bread.” But the literal sense of the Greek is something like “supersubstantial bread,” designating, not so much the bread of ordinary human consumption, but the bread suitable for a higher pitch of existence.

How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

As is often the case in the Gospel of John, a skeptical question opens toward deeper understanding: “So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? . . . Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness’” (John 6:30–31). They were appealing, of course, to the miracle by which Yahweh fed the children of Israel during their forty years’ wandering in the desert, but Jesus wants them to understand that he is offering a food that will nourish them in a more abiding way. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:49–50). “Heavenly bread” catches much of the paradox of the orthodox teaching concerning the Eucharist: though it remains, as far as the eye can see, ordinary bread, the Eucharist in fact participates in a properly transcendent mode of existence and possesses, consequently, the power to produce eternal life. In Jesus’ next observation, we see precisely why the heavenly bread has this virtue: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). Here again we see that stubborn realism upon which the Catholic tradition will insist. Jesus unambiguously identifies himself with this bread that will nourish his people to eternal life.

What follows is one of the most beautifully understated lines in the Gospel of John: “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52). I say “understated,” for the term “dispute” barely hints at the intensity of the objections that must have come forward from the crowd upon hearing Jesus’ words. They must have found this discourse not only intellectually and religiously problematic but—if I can put it this bluntly—nauseating. Throughout the Old Testament, we can find numerous explicit prohibitions against the eating of flesh and blood. For example, in the book of Genesis, in the context of the Noah story, we find this divine directive: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:3–4). The idea here is that since blood is the vital principle that belongs to God alone, it ought not to be brought under the control of human beings. We find the same prohibition among the legal decrees in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “It shall be a perpetual statute through your generations, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood” (Lev. 3:17), and “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat” (Deut. 12:23). Moreover, in his vision of apocalyptic judgment, the prophet Ezekiel speaks of the carrion birds who will swoop down on the enemies of Israel and eat their flesh and drink their blood: “You shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth. . . . You shall eat fat until you are filled, and drink blood until you are drunk” (Ezek. 39:18–19). Finally, a popular Aramaic saying of Jesus’ time identified the devil as the “eater of flesh.” If the prohibitions we have rehearsed had to do with the consumption of the bloody flesh of animals, how much more offensive must Jesus’ words have been, which encouraged the eating of his own human body. Hence the viscerally negative reaction of Jesus’ audience.

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If Jesus, therefore, wanted to soften his teaching, to place it in a wider interpretive context, to insist upon the metaphorical or symbolic sense of the words he was using, this would have been the perfect opportunity. As I mentioned, the skeptical questions of his interlocutors are often the occasion, in John’s Gospel, for Jesus to clarify the meaning of his pronouncements. A very good example is his symbolic explanation of the sense of “being born from above” when confronted with the literalistic question of Nicodemus, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3–5). But in this case, Jesus didn’t spiritualize his rhetoric; just the contrary. He said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Behind the English term “eat” in this sentence is not the Greek word we would expect, phagein, which means to eat in the ordinary sense. The term that is used is trogein, which was typically employed to communicate the manner in which animals consume their food; it might be rendered as “gnaw” or “munch” in English. Thus, if they were bothered by the gross animalistic overtones of what he had said, he purposely bothered them further. And in case they still missed his meaning, he added, “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55). He then draws the crucial conclusion from all of this bluntly realistic talk: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:56–57). For Christians, Jesus is not simply a wise teacher by whose words one abides (like Confucius) or an ethical exemplar whom one might strive to follow (like Gandhi or St. Francis) or even a bearer of definitive revelation to whom a person might feel beholden (like Muhammad); rather, Jesus is a power in whom we participate, a field of force in which we live and move and have our being. In his master metaphor, St. Paul speaks of the Body of Jesus of which baptized people are members. The rhetoric that we have just cited implies an intensely organic relationship between the Father, Jesus, and the Church, the third deriving its life from the second who derives his life from the first. We must eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of the Lord because that is the way that we come to participate in him and thus, finally, in the life of the Father. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, we find equally vitalistic language: we are much more than followers of Jesus; we are grafted onto him as branches are grafted onto a vine. The very earliest theology of the Eucharist is found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, penned probably in the early fifties of the first century, and it clearly brings forth this organic, participative quality. Paul speaks of the intense identification that is effected between Jesus and his Church precisely through the Eucharist: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). The evocative Greek term behind “sharing” is koinonia, meaning communion or mystical participation.

Is this a hard doctrine? At the conclusion of the Eucharistic discourse, delivered at the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus practically lost his entire Church: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” (John 6:60). Again, if he were speaking only at the symbolic level, why would this theology be hard to accept? No one left him when he observed that he was the vine or the good shepherd or the light of the world, for those were clearly only metaphorical remarks and posed, accordingly, no great intellectual challenge. The very resistance of his disciples to the bread of life discourse implies that they understood Jesus only too well and grasped that he was making a qualitatively different kind of assertion. Unable to take in the Eucharistic teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). Jesus then turned to his inner circle, the Twelve, and asked, bluntly enough: “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67). There is something terrible and telling in that question, as though Jesus were posing it not only to the little band gathered around him at Capernaum, but to all of his prospective disciples up and down the ages. One senses that we are poised here on a fulcrum, that a standing or falling point has been reached, that somehow being a disciple of Jesus is intimately tied up with how one stands in regard to the Eucharist. In response to Jesus’ question, Peter, as is often the case in the Gospels, spoke for the group: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69). As in the synoptic Gospels, so here in John, it is a Petrine confession that grounds and guarantees the survival of the Church. In the Johannine context, this explicit confession of Jesus as the Holy One of God is bound up with the implicit confession of faith in the Eucharist as truly the Body and Blood of the Lord. When the two declarations are made in tandem, John is telling us, the Church perdures. In light of this scene, it is indeed fascinating to remark how often the Church has divided precisely over this question of the Real Presence.

You can order your own copy of Bishop Barron’s This Is My Body (Word on Fire Publishing) here.