“I am the bread that came down from heaven” (Jo. 6:41).
The phrase from our Gospel today, “Bread from heaven,” comes originally from the story of the manna, the mysterious substance that fed the People of Israel while they were wandering in the wilderness. As it says in Exodus, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day” (Ex. 16:4). The bread from heaven was God’s response to the People who were complaining about leaving the fleshpots of Egypt: literal fleshpots, that is, in which meat was on the boil and there was plenty to eat. Not so much in the wilderness, where provision was scarce and the people were hungry.
The manna was given each day, just enough for a day; anything left over or saved would spoil. Bread from heaven had a short shelf life. On Friday, a double provision would be given because the People weren’t supposed to work on the sabbath. After the People entered the promised land, a sample of the manna was preserved by God’s commandment, to remind them how God had provided for them. Each year, at the feast of the Passover, the People remembered what God had done.
Our Gospel today is part of a larger discourse, linked to Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the Gospel of John. We heard the story of the miracle a couple of weeks ago, and our readings since then have helped to explain what took place. In that story, at the time of the Passover (as John carefully notes), a large crowd gathers around Jesus, and it’s time to eat. There are only five loaves and two fish, but Jesus gathers the crowd in a grassy place, blesses and distributes the food, and there’s enough for everyone, including leftovers.
John tells the story in such a way as to highlight the connection between the “bread of heaven” that God provided to the People of Israel in the wilderness, and the bread that Jesus provides to the crowd that is following him. God provides food in both cases, and there is more than enough. So far, so good. But it’s in the dialogue with the crowd afterward that Jesus goes deeper, inviting not only their reflection on the meaning of the miracle, but our own reflection as well.
Jesus himself is the bread that came down from heaven. The contrast with the manna is that the People of God in Moses’ day ate that bread, and still died. It was bread that lasted only for a day and then was no longer any good. Jesus calls himself “the bread of life” (Jo. 6:35, 48), or “living bread” (Jo. 6:51): that is, lasting bread that “gives life to the world” (Jo. 6:33). As Jesus says in our Gospel today, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (Jo. 6:50).
Jesus is the “true bread” (Jo. 6:32) that the crowd desires; the bread that will not fade away and that will feed them forever. Jesus invites their faith in him, the One who is the bread from heaven with no expiration date. He has come down from heaven like the manna; come to do the will of God. He invites our faith; as he says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life” (Jo. 6:47). “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jo. 6:35). Jesus is the source of life, the bread of life, the living bread for those who have faith in him.
Jesus takes this invitation one step further when he says, at the end of our reading, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jo. 6:51). Did you notice the change up? Jesus had been talking about giving them bread, but now he says that the bread he will give is his flesh.
Remember the Passover setting of the miraculous feeding: the festival of the sacrificial lamb whose blood saved the People at the time of the Exodus. Jesus is that lamb of God, according to John’s Gospel (Jo. 1:29), the One who gives himself for the life of the world. It’s at the Passover time that Jesus offers his life for the life of the world; it’s at the Passover time at the last supper that he tells his disciples, “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
Jesus gives himself in sacrifice on the cross, and he continues to give us his body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever” (Jo. 6:51). He invites us today to put our faith in him, and to share in the sacrifice of himself that has won salvation for us, through eating and drinking these holy gifts. He is the living bread that came down from heaven, not like the manna that passed away, but the One who feeds us for eternal life.