Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The word Bethlehem means “house of bread.”
After he was born, he was laid in a manger. A manger is a feeding trough.
This imagery of God providing bread for His people goes all the way back to the book of Genesis with the patriarch Joseph. Joseph was sold to the Gentiles by his brothers and thrown into a dungeon after being falsely accused. After he was released, he was made second in command of the Kingdom of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. God had worked through all the evil perpetrated against Joseph by his own brothers and by the Egyptians, not only to benefit them, but to benefit the entire world. (In a future article I will discuss in detail all of the striking ways in which Joseph prefigured Christ.)
Old Testament Joseph
God had told Joseph through the dreams of Pharaoh that there would be a severe famine in the world for seven years; this would, however, follow seven years of plenty. After he was put in charge of Egypt, he ordered that grain be stored up in the years of plenty in order to be used in the years of famine. Everything came to pass just as Joseph had prophesied, so when the seven years of famine came, there was enough grain to feed not only Egypt, but the entire world.
The story of Joseph in the Old Testament is a remarkable foreshadowing of what Jesus would accomplish. He, too was betrayed to the Gentiles by his Jewish brothers. He, too was falsely accused. And just like Joseph was restored from the dungeon prison and raised to the right hand of Pharaoh, Jesus was restored from the grave and raised to the right hand of God. From that position of authority, like Joseph, Jesus could feed the world.
But with what kind of food does Jesus feed the world? Joseph gave them grain for their physical sustenance, but Jesus has a different kind of food. In the Gospel of John, after feeding the 5000, Jesus said the following:
“Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
When the people inquired about the bread, Jesus said,
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and that bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Now, this was a pretty radical statement. He said that in order for people to be saved, they must eat his flesh. The Greek word for “eat” in this passage is phago, which simply means “to eat.” When the people started complaining about this, for it was a pretty radical and unusual thing to say, Jesus intensified his meaning:
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus intensified his meaning in two ways. First of all, “very truly” in the Greek is “Amen, amen.” This is a double “so be it.” This was used by Jesus in the Gospels when he wanted to emphasize the importance or seriousness of something.
Secondly, the Greek word for “eat” in the above sentence is trogo – different from the word phago in the previous excerpt. Trogo is more to the point. It means, to gnaw, munch, crunch, chew, or grind with the teeth. Just in case his hearers might mistake Jesus’s meaning as figurative, he used the word trogo so that there would be no misunderstanding.
Many Lose Their Faith Including Judas
When did Judas lose his faith? Some say it was right before Judas went to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. But truth be told, it was about a year before in the fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. This was the occasion of the miracle discussed above of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ discourse on him being the bread of life that came down from heaven.
After hearing Jesus’ expound on the necessity of eating his flesh for salvation, the account says that many of his disciples remarked that this was a hard saying and “who could listen to it.” After that, we are told that “many of his disciples drew back and no longer followed him.”
Except for his betrayal and death, the Gospels speak of no other situation in which there was such a mass desertion of his disciples. Jesus did not pander to the crowd in order to try to get them back, just the opposite. He turned to the remaining disciples and asked if they wanted to leave too! Peter then spoke with the memorable response:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”-John 6:68-69
Because of the beauty of Peter’s words, we often overlook the following words of Jesus in this same passage which are equally poignant. Listen to these remarkable words:
“But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.”
Now this is interesting. Of course the disciples who deserted him did not believe. That is why they deserted him. But notice how Jesus singles out one in particular who did not believe – one who would betray him, i.e. Judas Iscariot. People often wonder what happened to Judas. Why or when did he lose his faith? He lost his faith at Capernaum about a year before he betrayed him. And why did he lose his faith? Like the rest of the disciples who no longer followed him, it was because he rejected doctrine taught by Jesus that a person must “eat his flesh and drink his blood” in order to be saved. This was the crisis point for Judas. He could not accept the Eucharistic teaching of Jesus which ultimately lead to his eternal perdition.
Peter versus Judas
In Jesus’ discourse in John 6, he lays out the requirement for salvation – eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In order to illustrate this point, the Gospel writer John includes two examples. First of all, we have Peter who clung to the words of Jesus as the very words of life itself, even though he may have not understood them fully. And tragically, we have the example of Judas who rejected Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist and and as a result “had no life within himself.”
Many Christians view the sacrament of the bread and wine as a blessing. But how many have thought of it as the dividing line among humanity, the demarcation of two types of people – those who recognize the body and blood of Jesus as such, partake of it, and are saved and those who don’t?
The Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is not just another nice doctrine of the Catholic Church, but absolutely necessary for salvation. Tragically though, a Pew survey in 2019 stated that the majority of Catholics did not believe that the body of blood of Christ were the actual body and blood of Christ. If this is true, then how did such unbelief take root in those, among all people, who are supposed to believe in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine? This is a topic for another blog post.
So unlike Joseph who gave the people bread for life, Jesus is the bread of life. This was a point of separation for many of Jesus’s disciples. After he made clear that he was speaking literally, most of them left. Of course, the Church came to realize that Jesus did not mean to imply that we engage in cannibalism in order to be saved. It is through the miracle of transubstantiation that the elements of bread and wine become literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
The Church borrowed from Aristotle in order to explain how this could be. Aristotle talked about “substance” and “accidents.” The substance is the essence of something that makes a thing what it is. It is what makes a dog a dog. The accidents are the changeable elements of a thing – those things that change without altering the essence. For example, when a dog grows old and gets gray hair, it is still a dog.
With the eucharist, the accidents of the bread and wine stay the same while the substance changes.
We now come full circle to the Christmas story. It is no random event that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, and that he was laid in a feeding trough, for he came into the world in order to be the bread of the world. In our modern world beset by spiritual famine, the only answer that will bring true nourishment to our souls, true satisfaction and fulfilment, is the partaking of the body and blood of Jesus. Everything else, no matter how noble, only leads to more restlessness. The world keeps running from one thing to another to find the solace that can only be found in the true bread from heaven. This is the message of Christmas.
The Only Basis of True Unity
St. Augustine emphasized not just the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but the unity that results from partaking of the mystical body and blood of Christ. Since individual members of the Church all partake of the same body and blood, Augustine said that the proper effect of this was unity as the Eucharist built the Church up in charity. There are many things in the world that people can unify around, everything from sports teams to national causes. I contend that the most profound thing in the world that can serve as the source of a true and lasting unity is the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Everything else is superficial by comparison.
The Christian Church was unified on this principle until the Reformation. Even though the early reformers stated that the most important question for salvation was one’s view of the Communion, they sadly disagreed on the nature of communion. The three major reformers, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were sharply divided on the issue and never did come see eye to eye on the matter. With such a divided view on such an important topic, how can there be true unity in the Church? Fortunately, the Catholic Church has always held the one view that the elements of Communion are the real body and blood of Christ.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 5th century said:
“As two pieces of wax fused together make one, so he who receives Holy Communion is so united with Christ that Christ is in him and he is in Christ.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch, 110 AD, stated:
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God…they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the selfsame flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.”
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From Amazon: “I believe The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion is one of the most complete and faithful guides to the Holy Eucharist available today. Dr. Feingold has written a masterful summary of the Catholic theology of the Eucharist that integrates scriptural and patristic foundations with scholastic and magisterial teachings on Eucharistic presence, the Mass as sacrifice, the participation of the faithful in the sacrifice of the Mass, the fruits of the Eucharist, adoration of the Eucharist, and contemporary canonical-pastoral questions regarding the worthy reception of Holy Communion. Drawing upon St. Thomas Aquinas and other eminent theologians, Dr. Feingold provides a treatment of the Holy Eucharist that is ideal for Catholic university and seminary classes on ‘the most august sacrament.'”
Robert L. Fastiggi, Professor of Systematic Theology, Sacred Heart Major Seminary
Feingold, Lawrence, The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion, Emmaus Academic, Steubenville, Ohio, 2018
Lang, Bernhard, Joseph in Egypt, Yale University Press, New Heaven and London, 2009