The “Bread of Life” – does it refer to the Eucharist, or the Passion of Jesus?

Pope John Paul II on the EucharistDuring his angelus message on August 23, 2015, Pope Francis explained the Gospel on the Bread of Life in a way that is a radical departure from the traditional Catholic explanation, and in a manner that is completely compatible with Protestantism.

To refresh your memories, Jesus had performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, but then explains that He is the Bread of Life. Jesus shockingly states that His flesh is real food and His blood is real drink. When everybody starts to walk away, Jesus does not soften the claim by saying He is only speaking in symbolic terms. Because He isn’t. He’s willing to watch them go. This is a strong scriptural argument for the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

Pope Francis explained the Gospel reading without referring to transubstantiation. Instead, he said that what Jesus meant by that flesh and blood talk was the “sacrifice of his very life”. Below is Pope Francis’ explanation:

Today is the conclusion of the readings from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St John, with the discourse on the “Bread of Life,” proclaimed by Jesus on the day after the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. At the end of that discourse, the great enthusiasm of the day before faded, because Jesus had said He was the Bread come down from heaven, and that He would give His Flesh as food and His Blood as drink, clearly alluding to the sacrifice of His very life.

The previous Sunday’s gospel, John 6:51-58, presents us squarely with eating Jesus’ flesh and blood, and again is a strong scriptural basis for the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

In his angelus address for the above passage, Francis explained that, “knowing he will have to die on the cross for us, Jesus identifies himself with the bread broken and shared, and it becomes for him the “sign” of the sacrifice that awaits him.”

Pope Francis insisted then, as he did during his August 23 angelus message, that the “bread” relates not to the Eucharist, but to Jesus’ death on the cross.

The Protestant Explanation: Similar to Pope Francis

Interestingly, here is how a footnote from a popular Protestant study Bible, the English Standard Version, deals with John 6:51:

6:51 living bread. The “bread” Jesus gives is his flesh (a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross). Jesus’ statement intermingles physical and spiritual truth. Jesus is not talking about literal “bread,” but he is the true “living bread” in the sense that those who believe in him have their spiritual hunger satisfied. He becomes this spiritually satisfying “bread” by sacrificing his own physical body in his death on the cross, and in that sense he can say that this spiritual bread is my flesh.

Note the parallelism in the explanation of Pope Francis and the Protestant study Bible. Both identify Jesus’ “bread” as his flesh on the cross.

Pope Francis: “knowing he will have to die on the cross for us, Jesus identifies himself with the bread broken and shared, and it becomes for him the “sign” of the sacrifice that awaits him.”

Protestant study Bible note: “The “bread” Jesus gives is his flesh (a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross).

Did the Pope deny Eucharistic Transubstantiation? No. But it wasn’t affirmed either, as is the usual traditional Catholic interpretation of the passage. A Protestant could have heard the explanation without a single objection.

Contrast the above explanations of the “Bread of Life” gospel with the explanations of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, who both clearly associated the “Bread of Life” with the Eucharist.

Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II on the “Bread of Life”

In his August 26, 2012 angelus homily, Benedict XVI explained the “Bread of Life” gospel (John 6:51) as follows:

This revelation [“I am the bread of life”] was incomprehensible to them [disciples] because they understood it in a purely literal sense, whereas these words foretold the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, in which He was to give Himself for the world’s salvation: the new presence of the Blessed Eucharist.

The closing Mass of World Youth Day 2000 had the “Bread of Life” Gospel (John 6:51) as the gospel reading.  In the closing Mass, the late St. John Paul II explained that the “Bread of Life” that Jesus refers to is the gift of Himself in the Eucharist:

In today’s Eucharistic celebration, Jesus helps us to come to know a particular aspect of his mystery. In the Gospel…[Jesus] reveals himself as the true bread of life, the bread which has come down from heaven to give life to the world (cf. Jn 6:51). These are words that those who hear Him do not understand…

But His hearers are hesitant: “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60)…they shake their heads and go away muttering, one after another. The initial crowd gradually grows smaller. At the end, only the tiny group of His most faithful disciples remains. But with regard to the “bread of life” Jesus is not prepared to back down. Rather, He is ready to lose even those closest to Him: “Will you also go away?” (Jn 6:67).

…This is the stupendous truth, dear friends: the Word, who took flesh two thousand years ago, is present today in the Eucharist…The Eucharist is the sacrament of the presence of Christ, who gives himself to us because he loves us. ∎

By Stephen Kinsley

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