The Reality of Saint John’s Eucharistic Symbolism

Valentin de Boulogne (+1632) The Last Supper

INTRODUCTION 

The Gospel of St. John, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, offers no account of the institution of the Eucharist in his narrative of the Last Supper.  Instead, he provides one of the most substantial Scriptural references for the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.[1]  This is the gospel where the Eucharist is first promised by Jesus.[2]

In order to more fully develop the Eucharistic theme in John, some groundwork must be laid in terms of an understanding of both the issue of sacramentalism in the gospel, and the concept of the sacred meal.

THE GOSPEL OF ST.  JOHN

Of all the gospels, the Fourth Gospel is the most mystical and symbolic.  By this it is meant that it is a treasure-house of psychological and spiritual insight.[3]  Many exegetes see a rich range of sacramental references scattered throughout this gospel—a view of faith intimately bound up with the sacraments, with their origins, with their celebrations, and with the divine life which flows from them.[4]

Origen and others of his school of thought regarded the Scripture as having both a literal and a spiritual sense.  The literal sense of Scripture was its recounting of actual events.  The spiritual tradition, however, sought to arrive at an understanding of the deeper meaning of Scripture, which was often hidden in the text and could be grasped only by understanding the symbolic as well as literal meaning of Scriptural passages.  For them a Bible passage was not completely understood until its symbolic or spiritual meaning had been comprehended.  The meaning that lies hidden within the literal meaning was an introduction to the spiritual reality.  As Thomas Merton once wrote, “What is hidden beneath the literal meaning is not merely another and more hidden meaning, it is also a new and totally different reality… It is the divine life itself.”[5]  In this way one can relate to the Spirit who moves throughout the biblical narrative.

This theme of symbols as arising from the language of multi-meaning expressions was more fully developed by Ricoeur.  For him, there are two levels of intended meaning in symbols:  first, the literal meaning itself, and then the second, bound intimately to the first, which in religious symbolism expresses the human relationship to the Sacred.[6]

The Fourth Gospel is markedly different from the synoptics.  In it we find fewer stories, but much more use is made of each story for the purpose of teaching.  John uses most of his stories as the basis for an extended discourse by Jesus.  In this way, it is much more theological than historical.  It uses a great deal of symbolic language and many figures of speech.  Sacramental references are manifest throughout the gospel.  The scattering of such references through the historic ministry of Jesus implies that John had a strong sacramental sense.  For him, the sacraments are rooted in much, or even everything that Jesus did.[7] The author of the Fourth Gospel was a religious genius who was uniquely in touch with Jesus, thus the mystical quality of the text.  The Christ whose words we hear in the Fourth Gospel prefigure the Risen Christ to come.  Origen said, “We may therefore make bold to say that the Gospels are the first fruits of all Scriptures, but of the Gospels, that of John is the first fruit.”[8]

THE SACRED MEAL

A meal is a human event that meets our needs.  It should be an experience not only of biological need, but also of emotional, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual sustenance.  The Lord says, “One does not live by bread alone…” (Matthew 4:4).[9]  What this points out is that for a human being a meal is a social event.  It is an event for the soul as well as for the body.

The New Testament accounts of the Eucharist continue the Jewish tradition of sacred meals.  On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus ate such a meal with his disciples.  The Synoptic Gospels state that it was the Passover meal, whereas the Gospel of John is on a different timeline.  In John the crucifixion took place on Passover at the time the sacrificial lambs were slain, and the Last Supper took place the night before.  John’s gospel is making us think of Jesus himself as the Passover Lamb and the Passover Meal.

All four gospels associate the Last Supper at least indirectly with Passover and its elements of liberation and deliverance.  But the New Testament finds in the Last Supper a set of meanings not found in Jewish sources.  Although the Passover meal reenacts in a vivid way the liberation of the Exodus, the New Testament meal makes the stronger claim that Christ himself will be present whenever the Christian community reenacts the Last Supper. He will be present retrospectively as his actions are memorialized:  “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11: 25); and He will be present prospectively as the Messianic banquet in heaven is anticipated:  “I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26: 29).  In this way, the Lord’s meal is a proleptic participation in the eschaton.[10]

Table fellowship with Jesus and with each other has continued to be at the center of the Christian experience of God.  Throughout the history of the Christian Church the table has been the place where Christians meet their Lord.  The Eucharist remains fundamentally a meal that is shared among people.  It is a meal shared in the context of a relationship established by faith.  The Eucharist is the Christian meal par excellence.[11]

 THE EUCHARIST IN THE GOSPEL OF ST. JOHN

As noted earlier, St. John makes no mention of the Eucharistic meal in his account of the Last Supper.  Perhaps more importantly, however, he provides a detailed teaching on the fundamental meaning of the Eucharistic meal.  By adding the account of the heavenly food to the story of the feeding of the five thousand, John has laid the foundation for the theology and psychology of the Eucharist.[12]

The promise of the institution of the Eucharist is found in the sixth chapter.  It is neatly divided into three parts of unequal length which recount three separate incidents. Taken together these form a complete picture culminating in the Lord’s discourse on the Heavenly Bread.  We shall examine them separately:

  1. THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND

The first scene covers verses 1-15 and tells the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish.  In this miracle Jesus gave the people food for their bodies.  Certain details in the text require close examination.

From the beginning, Jesus is in charge of the situation.  It is He who observes the crowd and engages Philip as how to feed them.  Of interest is that there is no indication that the people are hungry or tired.  There would seem to be some other meaning behind Jesus’ motivation to perform the miracle— Jesus saw the crowd coming toward Him and He desired to feed them.  He expresses a desire to reveal Himself as the source of their nourishment.

All variations of this story (including the versions in the synoptics) stress the great number of people who were fed.  This emphasis on the large number who were fed is symbolic of the vast hunger of humankind for spiritual food.[13]  There is a huge spiritual emptiness in the human race.  Jesus is moved with compassion for them and shares a meal with them.  In doing so, He shares his presence, his conversation, and himself.

Several other details in the story give the passage a Eucharistic slant.  First, the gospel states that, “Jesus said, ‘Have the people recline.’”  This expression is reminiscent of the fact that at the Last Supper Jesus reclined at table with His apostles.  Second, at the beginning of the passage it is stated that, “the Jewish feast of Passover was near.”  It is of interest that in his narrative of the Last Supper, St. John mentions that it also occurs just before the feast of the Passover.  This would seem to be a desire on his part for the reader to make the mental connection with the Eucharist.  Further, the language used when Jesus performs the miracle is similar to that used at the institution of the Eucharist (as recounted in the synoptics).  Jesus is said to take the loaves, to give thanks, to distribute them to those reclining. He then shows further concern by ensuring that “nothing may be lost.”  Finally, after the miracle, the focus shifts to the bread only.  No further mention is made of the fish.

For all these reasons, one may be justified for suggesting strong Eucharistic overtones to the passage.  Bread is multiplied to feed a crowd; at the Last Supper Jesus will use bread to bring about a related miracle, feeding many spiritually with himself.  The bread of the multiplication is offered to all those following Jesus; similarly, the sacrament will be available to all believers.  The bread satisfies those who eat, and some is left over; just so, communion will nourish disciples, and in a way which is infinite or inexhaustible.[14]  Not surprisingly, therefore, this passage is drawn on by the Eucharistic Prayer found in the Didache of the Apostles:[15]

We give thanks to you, our Father. … as this fragmented bread was scattered on the mountains, but was gathered up and became one, so let the Church be gathered up from the four corners of the earth into your Kingdom.

 Interestingly, John records that the multiplication took place on a mountain, and that the crowds assembled there acclaimed Jesus as, precisely, a king.[16]

  1. THE TRANSITION—THE MIRACLE OF JESUS WALKING ON WATER

In the transitional verse St. John indicates the failure of the people to grasp what had really happened as they wanted to “make him king.”  Later, Jesus will explicitly inform them of the fact that they have failed to see the sign.

The next scene is recounted in verses 16-21, provided below for reference:

16When it was evening, his disciples went down to the sea, 17embarked in a boat, and went across the sea to Capernaum. It had already grown dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.  18The sea was stirred up because a strong wind was blowing.  19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they began to be afraid.  20But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”  21They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading.

Jesus, walking on the water, crosses the sea to the other side with the people following Him.  This brief scene is not without importance.  As Jesus walks across from one side of the sea to the other, He leads the people across.  Symbolically, this geographical journey represents a spiritual transition as well.[17]

The religious philosopher Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy, describes the apostles’ experience as a ‘numinous and therefore frightening event.’  Otto concluded that the essence of holiness was to invoke in the observer a feeling of awe, wonder, and even dread.  He called such an emotion numinous, from the Latin numen, meaning ‘divine majesty’ or ‘presiding spirit’.[18]  This would serve to augment the notion of a spiritual transition.

For other commentators there are still more Eucharistic overtones to this transitional scene.  Jesus arrives at the boat containing Peter and the others in a quasi-instantaneous way, as though for him space hardly exits.  Analogously, in the Eucharist we find the difference between our space and time and that of the ascended body of our Lord is taken away.  The comparison may seem a bit strained.  Still, the walking on water illustrates God’s omnipotence at work.  Jesus masters the elements of nature, and identifies himself with the words “It is I”, a form of the divine name, ego eimi, ‘I am’.  And, of course, only omnipotent divinity could give to an ordinary element like bread the qualities which Jesus will later ascribe to it.[19]

  1. THE DISCOURSE ON THE HEAVENLY BREAD

The third scene is the longest and covers verses 22-71.

The overall theme in this discourse is that of Christ who has made available for us the living bread that has come down from heaven.

In this scene the people have followed Jesus to the other side (of the sea) where He confronts them, asking them why they have followed him.  He immediately addresses the issue of nourishment and reminds them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”  He insisted that it was because they had been fed miraculously and wanted more food.  At this point Jesus begins to make the transition from the physical food to the spiritual food, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  Referring back to the event of the Exodus, Jesus affirms that the manna of the desert was only a foreshadowing of the food that He can give.  We know that the Jews in Jesus’ lifetime associated quite specific expectations with the manna of old.  For many, the coming of the Messiah would be announced by a renewal of the miracles of the Exodus, and notably of the gift of manna.  The Apocalypse of Baruch prophesies that, “the manna will come down again, and will be eaten …”[20]

Jesus continues, “… it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  Most commentators agree that the ‘bread’ which the Father will give is Jesus himself.

The appearance of food in the psyche (as in a dream) often means that something is ready to be assimilated by consciousness.[21]  The miraculous feeding of the multitude by Christ and the later identification of Christ as the heavenly food signified that a new development had now become possible for humankind.  Christ is that new development.

The old attitudes are a food that cannot last, while the food that will be of lasting life and value is the food offered by the Son of Man.  It is clear that this food is symbolic of that which nourishes the soul, the innermost person.

The people are intrigued by the words of Jesus and appeal to him, “Sir, give us this bread always!”  Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst…”  This language is reminiscent of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4: 14, “… but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst …”  So far in the discourse, the Eucharist, although not excluded, has not yet been formally introduced.  To this point, the view is not so much forward to the sacrament as backwards to the Old Testament figure of Wisdom.[22]   Like the personified divine Wisdom, “Come, eat of my bread, and drink the wine I have prepared” (Proverbs 9: 5), Jesus will feed human beings on his teaching.

But, in verses 48-51, the discourse shifts dramatically.  Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life which must actually be eaten.  As has often been observed, were Jesus not moving on, at this juncture, to speak of a genuine eating, a literal meal, then something very odd has occurred.  Having expounded a Christological idea in clear terms, He is repeating it in a new form which is not only enigmatic, but also, frankly repellent.  In the Semitic languages the idiom ‘to eat someone’s flesh’ exists, but it means to injure somebody, to do them harm—rather like the contemporary expression ‘to bite someone’s head off’.  And as for the drinking of blood, that had even more unattractive associations.  Mosaic Law strictly forbade the consuming of blood, even animal blood.  Not surprisingly, the crowd is angered, saying, “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?”   Typically, when Jesus’ teachings had been correctly understood yet found objectionable, He would restate it without in any way softening its force.  A good example of this is found in John 8: 56-58, “Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”  So, the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.”  Jesus insists, “… my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink …” —a reiteration which must count as the doctrine of the Real Presence in its Johannine form.[23]

The image of eating Christ’s body is amplified by the image of drinking his blood.  It is the primary Christian symbol for integration and has been enshrined in the Christian Eucharistic ritual.[24]  The outward and visible sign in the sacrament is the wafer of bread and the chalice of wine; the inward spiritual event is the incorporation of Christ into oneself.  We seek to incorporate into ourselves the virtues of Jesus Christ.

The result of this ‘meal’ will be something called ‘eternal life’.  Jesus goes on, “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 …”  Many of the people are unable to accept this, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”  Sanford argues that the Greek skleros, for ‘hard’, combined with Greek parakouo, which is a term for the sin of ‘failing to listen’ indicate John’s intent to demonstrate a failure to listen to God on the part of the unbelievers.[25]

The last major point in the discourse is a comment by Jesus which has been variously interpreted, It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.”  Many who are hostile to the doctrine of the Real Presence have used this verse to dispute the importance of receiving the flesh (body) of Christ in the Eucharist.  We must look for an interpretation consistent with John’s wider message.  Two views are generally put forth:  First, Jesus is stressing that the unique food and drink he promises are not to be valued because they are flesh.  The bodily presence (flesh) is of value only in that it carries the life of God.  It is valuable as the mode in which the Logos is present to the world from the moment of the Incarnation onwards.  As a second interpretation, the contrast between flesh and spirit does not lie in the difference between the two aspects of Jesus’ reality as the Word made flesh, but between two ways of approaching his teaching.  On this view, ‘flesh’, purely human understanding, cannot grasp the meaning of his words.  His teaching is divine, and to be appropriated by us requires the help of the Father.[26]

In summary then, the Eucharistic symbolism in John begins when Our Lord fed the crowd miraculously—but it was a physical feeding.  He crossed the lake which demonstrated a transition for the reader, both geographically as well as contextually.  The crowd followed Jesus across the lake physically, but would they follow Him spiritually?  He captured their attention by feeding them physically.  Would they continue to pay attention to Him when He wanted to feed them spiritually?  The second feeding would also be miraculous, but miraculous for their souls, not their bodies.  Even though the Gospel of St. John does not give us an account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, his account of the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse provides a brilliant complement.

[1] Buckner, Christopher M.  The Theology of Sacraments, Part One.  Paeonian Springs, VA:  CHSI, 1992.

[2] Nichols, Aidan.  The Holy Eucharist.  Dublin:  Veritas, 1991.

[3] Sanford, John A.  Mystical Christianity:  A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John.  New York:  Crossroad, 1995.

[4] Nichols, Ibid.

[5] Merton, Thomas.  Bread in the Wilderness.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 1986.

[6] As discussed in Fink, Peter E.  Worship:  Praying the sacraments.  Washington, DC:  Pastoral Press, 1991.

[7] Brown, R.E.  The Gospel According to John.  New York:  1966.

[8] Origen, Commentary on John.

[9] Biblical references, unless otherwise noted, are from the New American Bible, © 1991 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.

[10] Personal communication from O’Neill, P.  Lecture material from The Sacraments of the Church.  School for Pastoral Ministry, Diocese of Venice, Florida, 1995.

[11] Fink, Peter E.  Worship:  Praying the sacraments.  Washington, DC:  Pastoral Press, 1991.

[12] Sanford, Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] As discussed in Nichols,  Ibid.

[15] Didache  9:  10.

[16] As discussed in Nichols,  Ibid.

[17] Buckner, Ibid.

[18] As discussed in Sanford,  Ibid.

[19] As discussed in Nichols, Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Edinger, Edward F.  Anatomy of the Psyche.  La Salle, IL:  Open Court, 1985.

[22] As discussed in Nichols, Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Sanford, Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Nichols, Ibid.