Today’s Gospel reading sounds like an unmistakable reference to the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Gospel says, “Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them.” (Jn. 6:11) This is obviously about the Eucharist, isn’t it? It’s easy to make this assumption, but in doing so, do we also assume that we fully understand what the Gospel is telling us about the Eucharist? I would like to suggest that, while it’s safe to assume that this Gospel passage is referring to the Eucharist, it is not necessarily safe to assume that we understand all that the reference is saying.
A “Religious Knowledge Survey” performed several years ago by the Pew Research Center supports my suspicions about the widespread lack of understanding about the nature of the Eucharist. * The survey was intended to measure the degree to which church members understood the teachings of their particular denomination or tradition. According to the survey, slightly more than half of the Catholics in the United States know that the Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine offered at Mass become the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood as a result of consecration. I suppose that one could interpret these results as meaning that the glass of belief is either half full or half empty. Regardless of the interpretation one chooses, half-belief amounts to a lack of belief.
The Catholic Church says that the bread and wine offered at Mass are transubstantiated into the Sacramental presence of the Risen Lord Jesus. This terminology might be somewhat opaque to many people, but the meaning it intends to communicate is quite easy to understand. If you are married and have ever misplaced your wedding ring, you remember the distress you felt until the ring was found. The value that married couples place on their wedding rings is not directly a function of the rings’ monetary cost or their aesthetic appeal. Wedding rings are tangible signs that represent the entirety of a couple’s relationship: how they met, how they married, their life together, their child-raising years, their struggles and joys and sorrows, and their old age (for those fortunate enough to remain married for a lifetime). The rings are more than merely a reminder. Not only do wedding rings make a couple’s memories present, wedding rings also make the relationship present. In a sense, wedding rings cause what they represent; they cause married people to experience themselves as vowed to their spouses.
In a somewhat similar way, the bread and wine offered at Mass do not function as mere reminders of Jesus, his life, and his sacrificial death. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is a sign that causes the Crucified Jesus to be present to the Church. In this sense, Eucharist is an effective sign: it causes what it signifies. Eucharist makes present to believers the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There is much more to understand, however, about the Church’s teaching regarding the Eucharist. Today’s Gospel reading, for example, intends to teach us that not only does the Eucharistic bread become Jesus but that Jesus also becomes our bread.
The Gospel says, “When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?’ He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do.” (Jn. 6:5-6) Jesus intended to satisfy the crowd’s hunger in order to teach them about God’s Kingdom. The miraculous feeding of the crowd in the desert was an effective sign; it caused what it signified. The miracle signified God’s compassionate care for God’s People and made that compassionate care present to all who witnessed it.
In a very real sense, Jesus intends to feed us with his teaching. Jesus’ teaching aims to satisfy our deepest hungers. His command that we are to forgive our enemies is intended to satisfy our tendency towards resentment and revenge. His requirement that we love God above all else is intended to rescue us from the impoverishment of superstition and narcissism. His instruction to show compassionate care to the poor and marginalized is intended to redeem us from the wasteland of greed and selfishness.
The Eucharist does not have only the single effect of making Jesus present to believers; Eucharist also intends to make believers present to the Lord Jesus by means of their imitation of his obedience to God.
The Eucharist is bread and wine that become the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, but the Eucharist does not signify a one-sided relationship between God and the Church any more than marriage is a one-sided relationship between individuals. Half of a relationship is less than a relationship. The Eucharistic bread becomes the Sacrament of Jesus’ presence because Jesus intends to become the bread that feeds our souls. Jesus is the incarnate presence of God who intends to become our spiritual food in the most concrete, particular events of our daily lives.
If our Eucharistic celebration today is going to feed our souls, then we must both receive the presence of Jesus and give ourselves to God by means of our faithful obedience to the Lord’s commands. If we do no more than receive, we have not yet understood the meaning of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, bread becomes the sacrament of Jesus in order that Jesus might feed us with the spiritual bread of his teaching.