The bread from heaven

GOD'S WORD TODAY - Nono Alfonso, S.J. - The Philippine Star

“What is your favorite food?” the Priest surveys his congregation. And hands were excitedly raised up for tinolang manok, or adobo, and more so, for lechon. But he gets stunned silence and quizzical look from the crowd when he asked, “what about Jesus: is he not your favorite food as well?”

We may find this story amusing or perhaps revolting, but the truth is that this has been a longstanding sacred Catholic doctrine. In the Holy Eucharist, the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. He becomes real food for us; we eat his flesh. Yes, we may be familiar with this article of our faith and the “technical language” we have learned from our catechism or religion classes —“transubstantiation,” “real presence”— but if we are honest enough, we would admit that for many of us, the bread we receive at communion is not Jesus, but just wafer. And when we hear the words in the Gospel today — “I am the living bread 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” — we dismiss it as mere symbolical language, like many Christian sects do. Jesus was simply using metaphorical language; he is bread in the sense that he nurtures our soul.

But that, of course, is not the Catholic position. And the Catholic position is based on the very words of our Lord himself as evidenced by the Gospel today: what I give for you to eat (the Greek word used means to chew or gnaw) is my very flesh. This is of course difficult to grasp. And that precisely why the Jews reacted negatively to these words of Jesus. If he were merely being metaphorical or symbolical, the Jews would have easily accepted that. There would be no conflict. But he insisted and repeated himself again and again, throughout this chapter from John — no, I am the bread, the food that you must eat. The Jews finally got it but could not accept his “hard” teaching, and because of this, as the Gospel continues next Sunday, many of his disciples would desert him. If Christ were merely being symbolical, would this sad ending happen at all?

This is the biblical testimony. History also confirms how the Romans despised the early Christians precisely because of their celebration of the Holy Eucharist in which they ate their very Lord. For the Romans, as for the Jews in John’s Gospel today, this practice smacked of cannibalism. And that was how the early Christians were known - as cannibals!

But what is the import of all this for us, modern-day or post-modern-day Catholics? Why would Christ seek to become real food? And so we move to the territory of theology, and our Catholic theologians tell us that this is all part of the beautiful and grand mystery of the incarnation - God becoming flesh and blood, so we may be saved. Our God is not to be confined to the realm of the spirit or the Greek world of ideas and so he enters into the history of man and embraces our colorful human situation. He becomes matter so he may truly matter to us. In all this, we discover a God who from the very beginning wants to be intimate, or more accurately united with his beloved creature. He achieves this in the incarnation and after the Resurrection, he continues to be present to his Church through the very sacrament whom he himself instituted, the Holy Eucharist. As bread and wine, as food that becomes sugar for the cells in our body, he becomes truly part of us. The ultimate Lover finally becomes united with his beloved. In the incarnation, then, and in the Holy Eucharist, we marvel at this great, untiring, unending, strong and constant love of God for us.

And humble love, the saints would add. St. Augustine, for example, was deeply struck by today’s Sunday Gospel, saying, “Who, if not Christ, is the bread of heaven? But so that men might eat the bread of angels, the Lord of the angels became man. If he had not done this, we would not have his body; not having his body, we would not eat the bread of the altar” (Sermon 130, 2). St. Thomas Aquinas would reiterate these words in a song he composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi: panis angelicus, fit panis hominum (the bread of the angels becomes the bread of man). In other words, God condescended, humbled himself to become food for us.

An important observation is made about the food we eat. Following the natural laws of science (i.e. survival of the fittest), we eat what is inferior to us. We are on top of the food chain, and the living things under us, whether flora or fauna, become our food. But God certainly is not inferior to us. He is after all the Creator of all. And yet he becomes bread and wine, he becomes food for us. He humbles himself, becomes inferior that we may be saved. It is this humble love of God for man that has not escaped our saints. And may we also be reminded of this every time we partake of Christ’s flesh and blood in Holy Communion.

Is that it then? Is that the whole point of the Eucharist - Love? God’s constant and humble love? There is a secular saying that goes, “We become what we eat!” It is our prayer then, that in our regular encounter with God in the Eucharist, we may be conformed more and more to the image of Christ, as St. Paul puts it. In the end, we hope in this transformative love of God. As Pope Benedict XVI says, “the Eucharist is the permanent grand meeting of man with God, in which the Lord becomes our food, gives himself to transform us into himself…In fact, It is not the eucharistic food that is changed into us, but rather we who are mysteriously transformed by it. Christ nourishes us by uniting us to himself; he draws us into himself.”

Like Christ who humbly becomes bread for us, may we also become food for our world.

*Fr. Nono Alfonso, SJ is the director of Jesuit Communications Foundation.










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