A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, July 29, 2012 | Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time | Carl E. Olson
• 2 Kgs 4:42-44
• Ps 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18
• Eph 4:1-6
• Jn 6:1-15
When, as an Evangelical Protestant, I began working my way through the many Catholic beliefs that both puzzled and attracted me, one really stood out: the Eucharist.
And of all the various Scripture passages I read, re-read, and studied, there was one that especially shook me to the core: the sixth chapter of John. As I read what is among the most astounding and brilliantly realized passages of the Bible, the tension would build to the moment when Jesus, with serene firmness, asked of his murmuring disciples, “Does this shock you?”
Yes, I thought to myself, it does shock me. What to think? What to do?
The center of the shock is located in John 6:51-59, where Jesus stated emphatically, “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” (Jn. 6:53). But to appreciate more profoundly the mystery of the great Bread of Life discourse, we need to start at the beginning of the chapter and slowly work through the various stages of explosive revelation found in what is an argument, a teaching, a prophetic utterance, and, ultimately, a direct encounter with the heart of Jesus Christ.
Today’s Gospel reading is the first of five successive weeks of readings from John 6. These opening fifteen verses establish both the physical and theological context of what follows. Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee with a large crowd following on land; the people were curious about the miracles and signs performed by the Nazarene.
St. John notes, quite purposefully, that Jesus “went up on the mountain,” which indicates that God was about to work in a miraculous and startling way. The Evangelist also indicates the feast of Passover was near; this was the second Passover during Jesus’ public ministry. During the first Passover, Jesus had cleared the Temple and then prophesied rather cryptically his death and resurrection (Jn. 2:19-22). Later in John 6, Jesus spoke again about his death and resurrection (6:51). And the third Passover, of course, was when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified (Jn. 19:14).
The Passover context is significant for this central Jewish feast was a solemn ceremony in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, a pivotal and defining moment in Jewish history. At that first Passover (Ex. 12) the people were commanded to take an unblemished lamb, kill it, and spread the blood over the doorposts. They were then commanded to eat the lamb completely, along with unleavened bread. Down through time the Jews celebrated the Passover with a feast involving bread and wine and the singing of Psalms, followed by the sacrificing of lambs in the Temple.
Jesus is described as the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world” in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel (Jn. 1:29). In the sixth chapter, then, the essential themes are sustenance, sacrifice, and salvation. The sustenance was, first of all, physical in nature. Jesus was quite aware of the basic needs of those following him. But the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was not simply about physical satisfaction, but was the start of spiritual challenge and illumination.
In a pattern described several times in the Fourth Gospel—think of Nicodemus (Jn. 3) or the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4)—Jesus began with a physical object or event, such as birth or water, and used it as a springboard into deep spiritual waters. Those waters, in turn, are shown to be sacramental in nature. As we will see over the next few weeks, the physical sign of multiplying bread—itself a symbol pointing to the reality of the Eucharist—led to the declaration of a spiritual truth, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:35).
That, in turn, will bring us face to face with the sacramental reality—“For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn. 6:55)—and the question: “Does this shock you?”
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the July 26, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)