Readings: Acts 8:1b-8; Psalm 66; John 6:35-40
Not for the last time we hear of external events that, in spite of themselves and even contrary to their explicit purpose, favour the spread of the gospel. Whether it is persecution, as here, or resistance and indifference, arguments among the preachers themselves, or the need to recover from a bruising encounter - there are many extraneous things that result in great leaps forward in the preaching of the gospel. Scattering because of the persecution that breaks out in Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen, a persecution whose most energetic promoter is Saul, the Christian preachers go to different parts of the Holy Land and so fulfil the second part of the prediction Jesus made at the beginning of Acts: 'you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth' (1:8)
Part of the original preaching of the apostles is that even the decisions and actions of the enemies of Jesus were used by God to achieve the purpose which had always been within God's intention. He sent the Son into the world because he loved it so much, so that everyone who believes in him might not be lost but might have eternal life. The Son is to lose nothing of what has been entrusted to him but is to raise it on the last day. These divine purposes are achieved through the events of the passion and death of Jesus, which seemed to bring an end to his mission and were designed by human agents to do precisely that, but which in fact were the means God used to bring that mission to its fulfillment.
So parts of John 6, such as the section we hear today, can seem to be not only about the Eucharist but about the whole event of the birth and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is as it should be because the Eucharist contains the entire mystery of the Incarnation. The Eucharist is, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, 'the source and summit of the Christian life', that from which everything flows and that to which everything flows. An earlier writer, commenting on John 6, puts it this way:
'Even if it were true that this chapter does not refer to the Eucharist but to the whole work of Christ whose Incarnation feeds the souls of men, it nevertheless shows the place of the Eucharist in Christianity just as strongly as if its referenece were more directly Eucharistic. For the language of 'bread' and 'eating' and of 'blood' and 'drinking' is the Christian's Eucharistic language, and to express the Incarnation in the language of the Eucharist betokens the importance of the rite just as emphatically as to express the Eucharist in terms of the Incarnation' (A.M. Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, New York 1936, p.106).
In his commentary on John 6 Thomas Aquinas says similar things. As he puts it more succinctly in his antiphon for the feast of Corpus Christi, in the Eucharist we receive the whole mystery of Christ, we renew the memory of his passion, our souls are filled with grace, and we receive a pledge of eternal glory. In other words the entire work of the Incarnation is contained in the Eucharist - the Word becoming flesh to reveal the Father to us, the Son sent from the Father to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away, the Risen Lord recognised in the breaking of the bread. All of this is contained in the Eucharist, to human eyes a simple and routine ritual of readings, prayers and actions, but for those who believe the sacred banquet in which we feast on Jesus, our bread of life and our living bread.