What is the Bread of Life?

Communion Bread Wine

Bread. We live for bread. We pine for it, especially if we are deprived of it. Have you ever been on a low-carb diet? Or perhaps you avoid gluten. The cravings for bread can feel intense. Bread, in some form or fashion, is a staple of virtually every culture, and has been since antiquity. Ovens unearthed almost 2000 years after Mt. Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii contained loaves of carbonized bread, the staple of the ancient Roman diet.  It was the sustenance of the Jewish people, hungry in the desert as they fled from Egypt in Old Testament accounts.

What food did Almighty God provide for them every morning? Bread.

What did Christ multiply for the hungry crowds who had gathered to hear Him teach? Bread.

Jesus's Shocking Truth - Bread is the Staple of Life

Following the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the Gospel of John is one of the most flabbergasting passages in the Bible, especially when studied through the eyes of a first century Jew. The Gospels portray Jesus as a pull-no-punches straight shooter, and His use of the phrase "Amen, amen" is always a red flag to carefully heed the Truth He is about to reveal. Jesus, preaching in a synagogue, makes a jaw-dropping claim, choosing this basic staple of life - bread - to demonstrate how He nourishes us for eternity:

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. 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 it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” 

These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?"

Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you?" (John 6:47-61)

Bishop Robert Barron and others, when commenting on this discourse, have highlighted that the original Greek word used for "eat" in the passage literally means "gnaw," so the Jews listening to Jesus make this claim were likely rather revolted.

Why? Isn't Jesus just speaking metaphorically?

No. The Jewish audience clearly understood that Jesus's words were 100% literal. He wasn't employing allegory, metaphor, or spiritual symbolism. He unabashedly meant that they must gnaw on His flesh to have life within them. The Jews in the synagogue at that moment - Scriptural experts and followers of Jesus - understood the implications of His words and rejected this teaching as too difficult to accept.

As St. John Chrysostom (Doctor of the Eucharist) reminds us, "You may not doubt the truth of this; you must rather accept the Savior's words in faith; since He is truth, He does not tell lies."

Words Matter

Consider the exegesis of these Church Fathers on the transubstantiation from bread to Body:

  • St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "Now that you have had this teaching and are imbued with surest belief that what seems to be bread is not bread, though it has the taste, but Christ's body, and what seems to be wine is not wine, even if it appears so to the taste, but Christ's blood."
  • St. Cyril of Alexandria: "He used a demonstrative mode of speech, `This is my body' and 'This is my blood,' to prevent your thinking that what is seen is a figure; on the contrary what has truly been offered is transformed in a hidden way by the all-powerful God into Christ's body and blood. When we have become partakers of Christ's body and blood, we receive the living giving, sanctifying power of Christ."
  • St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "Since Christ Himself has said, 'This is My Body,' who shall dare to doubt that It is His Body?"

When the Lord speaks, it is different from when you or I speak. We may not always tell the truth. We may not always select the right words for the situation. Our words lack Divine power.

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But when words pour forth from the lips of Jesus, they ARE Truth.

They are the PERFECT words.

They ARE power.

As Catholics, we, like the first century Jews, wholly believe Jesus when He said: This is My Body. This is My Blood. Simply by uttering the words, Jesus makes it so. Only God Himself can transform the substance of simple bread into His very Body. Only God can transfer that authority down through each of His priests so that He can feed us 2000 years later.

Jesus requires us to celebrate and re-present His sacrifice as often as possible in this unbloodied form so that He can feed us throughout time ("Do this in memory of Me."). Jesus did not mean to feed his Apostles only once at the Last Supper, but desires to satisfy our eternal craving with His Body, from generation to generation.

Jesus expressed His deep longing to feed the physically hungry in His midst with simple bread while He walked the earth, but even deeper is His desire to continually feed our souls and His Church and to save us through true Communion with Him: consuming and becoming one with Him through the Bread of Life.

Are you aware of the power of the Holy Eucharist? How do you feel when Jesus says to you “whoever eats this bread will live forever;”?

These gifts serve as a wonderful reminder of the beauty of the Holy Eucharist.