Corpus Christi – metaphor and Eucharist

Christ_with_the_HostThe Eucharist. This section is written at two levels. At one level it is an on-going commentary on the verb “to eat” (cf. v. 31) summoning up a rich tradition of Eucharistic language: “bread,” “food,” “flesh,” “blood,” “to eat,” “to drink,” “will give,” “for your sakes.” The discourse, from v. 25 down to v. 59, presents Jesus as the true bread from heaven, replacing the former bread from heaven, the manna of the Law. The believer must accept the revelation of God that will take place in broken flesh and spilled blood (vv. 53-54), a never-failing nourishment (v. 35) that the Son of Man will give (v. 27).

But at the end of the first century Johannine readers, and the Christian readers of subsequent centuries, have every right to ask: where do we encounter this revelation of God in the flesh and blood of the Son of Man? The author’s insinuation of eucharistic language into the final section of the discourse provides the answer: one encounters the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ in the eucharistic celebration. The use of the word klasmata to refer to the bread consigned by Jesus to his disciples (vv. 12-13) has lurked behind the discourse, reminding the reader of such celebrations.

The author is working at two levels. The main thrust of the discourse is to point to Jesus as the revelation of God, the true bread from heaven, perfecting God’s former gift, the bread of the manna. However, the word klasmata in vv. 12-13, the promise in v. 27 of a future gift of food that the Son of Man would give, the reference to the satisfying food and drink in v. 35, and the further promise in v. 51c of the gift of the flesh of Jesus for the life of the world keep the eucharistic question alive. The midrashic unfolding of the verb “to eat” (cf. v. 31) in vv. 49-58 naturally led to the use of eucharistic language to explain the meaning of these verses in the living faith of the early Christian community.

The Eucharist renders concrete, in the eucharistic practice of the Christian reader, what the author has spelled out throughout the discourse. The Eucharist is a place where one comes to eternal life. Encountering the broken flesh and the spilled blood of Jesus, “lifted up” on a cross (vv. 53-54), the believer is called to make a decision for or against the revelation of God in that encounter (vv. 56-58), gaining or losing life because of it (vv. 53-54).

A Final Thought

There are many commentaries (e.g. Kruse) that insist on a metaphorical interpretation of “eat” and “drink” and are thus unable/unwilling to move beyond “eat” and “drink” as metaphors for belief. There are some commentators (e.g. LaGrange) who insist there is no metaphor, that the entirety of Jesus’ discourse is sacramental/Eucharistic. As Fr. Raymond Brown and Fr. Francis Moloney point out, the truly Catholic position is “both-and.” What begins in John 6:22-50 as metaphor for belief, is ultimately answered in John 6:51-58 as Eucharist.

Notes

John 6:51 the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh: Many elements in v. 51c reflect eucharistic traditions found elsewhere in the NT and in the early Church. The Johannine celebration of the Eucharist lies behind the use of key expressions: ho artos (bread), sarx (flesh), ego dōsō (I will give), hyper (for the sake of). These explicit eucharistic links are seen by most commentators as the introduction to vv. 51c-58, a discrete section within John 6 that deals with the Eucharist. It may be true that the “backbone of vss. 51-58 is made up of material from the Johannine narrative of the institution of the Eucharist” (Brown, Gospel 1:287), but behind the eucharistic language the interpretation given continues to support the more overarching message of Jesus’ self-gift for the life of the world. His body (“flesh”) will be given over in crucifixion for the life of the world.

John 6:52 The Jews quarreled among themselves: The quarreling (emachonto oun . . . hoi Ioudaioi) continues the theme of the “grumbling” from Exodus 16.

John 6:53 Amen, amen, I say to you: The presence of the double “amen” in v. 53 makes this the third use of the expression to introduce Jesus’ response to the misunderstanding interruptions that mark the beginning of each section (cf. vv. 26, 32). It is an indication of the staged unfolding of the argument. eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood: see “Additional Notes” below

John 6:54 those who eat my flesh: The use of trōgein for the action of “eating” is found throughout vv. 53-58 (cf. vv 54, 56, 57, 58). The claim that the verb is used to express the physical experience, “to munch,” “to crunch” is sometimes questioned. Those who reject this physical meaning point to the presence of phagein in the immediate context (cf. v. 53), and thus claim that the verbs are interchangeable. This does not respect the fact that the verbs phagein and esthiein are found in a number of places and contexts in the Fourth Gospel, but trōgein is found only in 6:54-58 and 13:18. Both of these passages have eucharistic background. It is often suggested that the vigor of this language combats emerging docetic ideas about Jesus.

John 6:55 true food…true drink: The Greek used for true is alēthēs – as opposed to the Greek alēthinos. This latter word (meaning “the only real”) is used to distinguish the heavenly reality from its earthly counterpart – and in scripture to distinguish the NT reality from it OT counterpart. Alēthinos would thus be out of place as Jesus is not contrasting his flesh with any natural or OT counterpart. Rather, Jesus is insisting on the genuine value of his flesh and blood as food and drink.

John 6:57 the living Father: The concentration on the theme of “life” and its communication from Father to Son to believer produces the expression “the living Father” (ho zōn pater).

John 6:58 bread that came down from heaven..whoever eats this bread will live forever: As Brown and Moloney [230-32] point out, there seems to be very little middle ground – scholars either believe the entire John 6 is metaphoric or they believe it is Eucharistic/sacramental. As they point out, many commentators write along their denominational beliefs, but scholars, despite their denominational professions, hold that Jon 6:51-58c is unavoidably Eucharistic.

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