The Lamb That Was Slain
by Fr. Richard Gilsdorf
Following is an excerpt from “The Lamb That Is Slain.” This excerpt presents Fr. Gilsdorf ’s exegesis of Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel.
The sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John consists, one could say, of two Acts, separated by an Interlude.
In the first Act (vv. 1-15) John records the feeding of 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. The Interlude (vv. 16-21) describes Jesus coming to His Apostles on the lake, walking on the water. The second Act (vv. 22-72) presents Our Lord’s promise of His Flesh and Blood in the Eucharist.
In verses 22-72 of Chapter 6 of St. John, Our Lord hammers home in ever more explicit terms His demand for acceptance of His promise of life through eating His flesh.
It is as though Jesus stands at the center, surrounded by layers of belief which are successively peeled away until He is alone with the Twelve.
On the periphery are the crowds— “the Jews” as St John refers to them— who are basically materialistic, looking for an economic savior who will provide them with bread.
Then there were those who were sympathetic to Jesus, interested in what He had to say, and kindly disposed toward Him. They could have taken His statement about being bread from heaven in a metaphorical sense. After all, the rabbis spoke of “the bread of the Torah,” and even of “eating the Torah,” i.e., the Word of God.
They could have understood Jesus as referring to His teaching as “bread.”
They could have . . . but they did not, because He made it perfectly plain that He was speaking of His Body. “I am the living bread.” He insisted. The bread is a living Person.
The people grumble and complain, just as the Israelites did in the desert before God sent the manna, but Jesus only heightens the realism.
The people are scandalized by this talk of eating flesh, but Our Lord does not try to explain away what He has said. He does not plead that He was only speaking symbolically—that He was really meaning transfinalization or transignification.
Instead, He uses even more realistic terminology.
Flesh and Blood
Where before He had spoken of “the bread of life”—that is, bread which gives life—now He uses the present participle, “living bread”—that is, a real, living Person.
He speaks of “eating my flesh” and deliberately chooses a word for eating which is not the ordinary word, but which implies the physical action of chewing and swallowing—certainly not a word to be taken poetically.
On top of this, He speaks of “drinking my blood,” and one can almost feel that crowd cringing. The kosher laws required that meat be drained of blood, and the very thought of drinking blood was inconceivable. Blood was the soul; its consumption was taboo.
Yet Jesus hammers home that He is speaking of real flesh and real blood. The word He uses means “genuine.” He is not dealing with shadows or symbols or types, and the people know it. They recoil in horror. Yet Jesus tells them that unless they accept His command, they cannot abide in Him. “Abide” is a word He is to use at the Last Supper for ecclesial and Eucharistic Communion.
It is, in fact, the theme of His whole discourse to the Apostles after the institution of the Blessed Eucharist, this mutual indwelling of Him in us and us in Him when we receive Him in Communion.
But now even His disciples—those who had committed themselves to learn from Him—also begin murmuring that what Jesus has put before them is a “hard saying.” They cannot understand it, so they will not accept it. They lack faith.
He points out to them that He is speaking of spiritual realities, none the less real for that, and He challenges them to think what the implication will be if they see Him “ascending to where He was before” (Jn. 6:63). His physical body, as they see it before them, will no longer be here. So the flesh and blood of which He is speaking must have a deeper reality.
Jesus sadly reflects that there are some who do not believe, and St John adds: “For He knew who it was that would betray Him.”
Whenever the Eucharist is mentioned in the Gospels, it is almost always accompanied by mention of betrayal, and of Judas. John 6:65 and 72 are the first mention of Judas’ betrayal—and it is inextricably linked with the Blessed Eucharist.
It might be said that Judas did not betray Our Lord merely because he was avaricious, but because he did not believe in the Blessed Eucharist. Denial of Our Lord by those of His own household begins, it would appear, with a loss of faith in the Real Presence.
Many of Jesus’ disciples turn away. Like so many today, they are nominally His followers, but they no longer believe. They do not accept the “hard sayings.”
Our Lord does not attempt to stop them. Rather, He turns to the last group of all, the inner circle of the Twelve, and asks them if they too will go away.
It is the ultimate challenge. “Take me or leave me,” He is saying. He is not asking them to accept His teaching or a catalogue of doctrines; He is asking them to accept Him.
Truth is not simply a statement; it is an organism, a living Person. We cannot pick and choose from the truth (the basic meaning of the word “heresy” is “picking and choosing”).
But as always at the critical moment, when there is at issue a profound question of doctrine or an allimportant decision, it is Peter who speaks out for the whole Apostolic College: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
St. John refers to him by both his names—“Simon Peter”—his own personal name and the name Jesus had given him indicating his function and office. In other words, it is the Rock who answers in the person of Simon, just as in our time it is Peter who speaks in the person of Pius or Paul or John Paul.
We too have seen many walk away into strange teachings and practices, refusing to accept the unchanging Catholic faith, but in the midst of betrayal, the Rock of the Papacy has stood firm.
Peter’s affirmation of faith, however, prompts Our Lord to recall again that the dark side of belief is betrayal. The Twelve were handpicked by Him, and yet He declares that one of them is a devil.
And St. John leaves no doubt. “Now He meant Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.” It is as though John cannot forget the enormity of that betrayal.
It should not surprise us, then, that there will be those who betray Our Lord, even among those whom He has chosen for His own.
Peter, however, becomes the confessor of the Eucharist, the custodian of the Sacrament. Every priest, likewise, must be a protector both of the doctrine of the Eucharist and the sacred species itself.
So Peter’s declaration has echoed down the centuries. He spoke then for the Church which he was one day to head.
And the Church has taken up his declaration, affirming of the Blessed Eucharist: “You are the Christ, the Son of God.”
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The above excerpt from “The Lamb That Is Slain” by Fr. Richard W. Gilsdorf is reprinted with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
. Fr. Gilsdorf, a retired priest in the Diocese of Green Bay, WI, holds a Ph.D. in biblical languages and literature from the School of Divinity at St. Louis University, an M.A. in Greek, and an M.A. in exegesis. A copy (30 pages at 8.5 x 11) of “The Lamb That Is Slain” can be obtained by calling Emmaus Road Publishing at 800-398-5470. A donation to cover costs is appreciated.