Slide 15 Slide 2 Foto di Filippo Maria Gianfelice

“I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE” - First Sermon, Lent 2024

Friday February 23rd, 2024

At the beginning of these Lenten sermons, we start again with the famous dialogue between Jesus and the apostles in Caesarea Philippi:
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:13-16).
Of all the dialogue, at this moment, we are interested only and exclusively in Jesus’ second question: “Who do you say that I am?” However, we do not take it in the sense in which that question is usually understood; that is, as if Jesus were interested in knowing what the Church thinks of him, or what our theological studies have taught us about him. No! We take that question as every word that comes from the mouth of Jesus should be taken, that is, as addressed, hic et nunc, to those who listen to it, individually, personally.
To carry out this exam, we will ask the evangelist John for help. In his Gospel, we find a whole series of declarations by Jesus, the famous, Ego eimi, “I Am,” with which he reveals what he thinks of himself, who he says he is: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” and so on. We will review five of these self-revelations, and we will ask ourselves each time if he really is for us what he says he is, and how to make him more and more so.
It’s a moment to be lived with a particular predisposition. Not with our eyes turned outward to the problems of the world and of the Church itself, as one is forced to do in other contexts, but with an introspective gaze. A moment, then, intimate, and detached, and therefore, all things considered, selfish? Far from it! It is evangelizing ourselves in order to evangelize, filling ourselves with Jesus to then talk about it “out of redundancy of love,” as the primitive Constitutions of my religious Order recommended to the preachers, out of an intimate conviction, and not just to absolve a commission.
* * *
Let’s start with the first of these “I Am” statements of Jesus that we encounter in the sixth chapter of the fourth Gospel: “I am the bread of life.” Let’s first listen to the part of the song that most directly interests us:
So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst (Jn 6:30-35).
A word on context. Jesus previously multiplied five barley loaves and two fish to feed five thousand men. Then he disappeared to escape the enthusiasm of the people who wanted to make him king. The crowd searches for him and finds him on the other side of the lake.
At this point begins the long speech with which Jesus tries to explain “the sign of the bread.” He wants to make it clear that there is another bread to be sought, of which the material one is, in fact, a “sign”. It is the same procedure used with the Samaritan woman in Chapter IV of the Gospel. There Jesus wanted to lead the woman to discover another water, beyond the physical one which she quenches only for a short time; here he wants to lead the crowd to look for another bread, different from the material one that satiates for just one day. To the Samaritan woman who asks for that mysterious water and awaits the coming of the Messiah to obtain it, Jesus replies: “It is I who speak to you” (Jn 4:26). To the crowd who now asks the same question for bread, he replies: “I am the bread of life!”
We ask ourselves: how and where do we eat this bread of life? The answer of the Fathers of the Church was: in two “places” or two ways: in the sacrament and in the Word, that is, in the Eucharist and the Scripture. There were, it is true, different emphases. Some, like Origen and among the Latins Ambrose, insist more on the Word of God. “This bread that Jesus breaks,” writes Saint Ambrose commenting on the multiplication of the loaves, “mystically signifies the word of God which increases when distributed. He has given us his words as loaves that multiply in our mouths as we taste them.” Others, such as Cyril of Alexandria, accentuate the Eucharistic interpretation. None of them, however, intended to talk about one way to the exclusion of the other. We speak of the Word and the Eucharist, as the “two tables” laid out by Christ. In the Imitation of Christ, we read:
I feel there are especially necessary for me in this life two things without which its
miseries would be unbearable. Confined here in this prison of the body I confess I need these two, food and light. Therefore, You have given me in my weakness Your sacred Flesh to refresh my soul and body, and You have set Your word as the guiding light for my feet. Without them I could not live aright, for the word of God is the light of my soul and Your Sacrament is the Bread of Life. These also may be called the two tables, one here, one there, in the treasure house of holy Church.

The unilateral affirmation of one of these two ways of eating the bread of life to the exclusion of the other is the result of the harmful division that occurred in Western Christianity. On the Catholic side, the Eucharistic interpretation had ended up becoming so preponderant as to make the sixth chapter of John almost the equivalent of the story of the institution of the Eucharist. Luther, in reaction, stated the opposite, that is, that the bread of life is the word of God; it is distributed through preaching and eaten through faith.
The ecumenical climate that has been established among believers in Christ allows us to recompose the traditional synthesis present in the Fathers. There is no doubt that the bread of life comes to us through the word of God and in particular the words of Jesus in the Gospel. His response to the tempter also reminds us of this: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). But how can we not see in Jesus’ speech in the synagogue of Capernaum also a reference to the Eucharist? The whole context evokes a banquet: we talk about food and drink, eating and drinking, the body and blood. The words: “Whoever does not eat my flesh and drink my blood…” recall too closely the words of the institution (“Take, eat, this is my body” and “Take, drink: this is my blood”) to be able to deny any relationship between them.
If in the exegesis and theology, we witness a polarization and sometimes – I was saying – a contrast between the bread of the word and the Eucharistic bread, in the liturgy their synthesis has always been experienced peacefully. Since the most ancient times, for example in Saint Justin Martyr, the Mass has included two moments: the liturgy of the Word, with readings taken from the Old Testament and the “memoirs of the apostles,” and the Eucharistic liturgy with consecration and communion.
Today we can return, as I was saying, to the original synthesis between Word and Sacrament. Indeed, we must take a step forward in this direction. It consists of not limiting eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ to the Word and sacrament of the Eucharist alone, but in seeing it implemented in every moment and aspect of our life of grace. When Saint Paul writes: “For me to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21), he is not thinking of a particular moment. For him, Christ is truly, in all ways of his presence, the bread of life; we “eat” him with faith, hope, and charity, in prayer and in everything. The human being is created for joy and cannot live without joy, or without the hope of it. Joy is the bread of the heart. And the Apostle seeks true joy – and exhorts his followers to seek it – in Christ: “Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, gaudete”: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).
Jesus is the bread of eternal life not only for what he gives but also – and first of all – for what he is. The Word and the Sacrament are the means; living in him and in him is the end: “As the Father who has life sent me, and I live through the Father, so he who eats me will live through me” (Jn 6:57). In the hymn Adoro te devote which has fueled the piety and Eucharistic adoration of Catholics for centuries, there is a verse which is a paraphrase of these words of Jesus. In the original that many of us certainly remember, it sounds like this:
O memoriále mortis Dómini,
Panis vivus vitam praestans hómini,
praesta meae menti de te vívere,
et te illi semper dulce sápere.

In English,
O memorial of my Savior dying,
Living Bread, that gives life to man;
make my soul, its life from Thee supplying,
taste Thy sweetness, as on earth it can.

* * *

All of Jesus’ speech tends, therefore, to clarify what life he gives: not the life of the flesh, but the life of the Spirit, eternal life. However, it is not along these lines that I would like to continue my reflection in the few minutes I have left. With regards to the Gospel, there are always two operations to be done, strictly respecting their order: first, appropriation, then imitation. We have until now appropriated the bread of life through faith and we do so every time we receive Communion. It is now a question of seeing how to translate them into practice in our lives.
To do this, we ask ourselves a simple question: How did he, Jesus, become the bread of life for us? He himself gave us the answer precisely in the Gospel of John: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24). We know well what the images of falling to the ground and rotting allude to. The whole history of the Passion is contained in them. We must try to see what those images mean to us. In fact, with the image on the grain of wheat, Jesus does not only indicate his personal destiny but that of every one of his true disciples.
One cannot listen to the words addressed by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch to the Church of Rome without being moved and without being amazed, seeing what the grace of Christ is capable of doing for a human creature:
I am corresponding with all the churches and bidding them all realize that I am voluntarily dying for God — if that is, you do not interfere. I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts — that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ.
Before the teeth of wild beasts, Bishop Ignatius experienced other teeth that ground him, not teeth of wild beasts, but of men: “From Syria to Rome,” he writes, “I fight with wild beasts, on land, and by sea, by night and by day, tied to ten leopards, the handful of soldiers who benefited from me become worse.” This has something to say to us too. Each of us has, in our environment, these teeth of wild beasts that grind us. Saint Augustine said that we human beings are “earthen vessels, which hurt one another”: lutea vasa quae faciunt invicem angustias. We must learn to make this situation a means of sanctification and not of hardening of the heart, hatred, and complaint!
An often-repeated maxim in our religious communities says vita communis mortificatio maxima: “Living in community is the greatest of all mortifications.” Not only the greatest but also the most useful and more meritorious than many other self-chosen mortifications. This maxim does not apply only to those who live in religious communities but to every human coexistence. Where it is achieved in the most demanding way is, in my opinion, marriage, and we must be full of admiration when faced with a marriage carried forward faithfully until death. Spending your whole life, day and night, dealing with the will, character, sensitivity, and idiosyncrasies of another person, especially in a society like ours, is something great and, if done with a spirit of faith, it should already be qualified as “heroic virtue”.
We, however, find ourselves here in the context of the Curia which is not a religious or matrimonial community, but one of ecclesial service and work. There are many opportunities not to be wasted if we too want to be ground to become God’s flour, and everyone must identify and sanctify what is offered to him in his place of service. I’ll name just one or two that I think are valid for everyone.
One opportunity is to accept being contradicted, to give up justifying oneself, and to always want to be right when this is not required by the importance of the matter. It is another to put up with someone whose character, way of speaking or acting gets on our nerves, and to do so without ourselves becoming irritated internally, thinking, rather, that we too are perhaps such a person for someone. The Apostle exhorted the faithful of Colossae with these words:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do (Col 3:12-13).
What is most difficult to “shred” in us is not the flesh, but the spirit, that is, self-love and pride, and these small exercises serve the purpose magnificently.
Unfortunately, today there exists in society teeth that grind without mercy, more cruelly than the leopard’s teeth of which the martyr Saint Ignatius spoke. They are the teeth of the media and the so-called social networks. Not when they point out the distortions of society or of the Church (in this they deserve all the respect and esteem!), but when they attack someone out of bias, simply because he does not belong to their side. With malice and with destructive, rather than constructive, intent. Unfortunate indeed is whoever ends up in this meat grinder today, be he a layman or a clergyman!
In this case, it is legitimate and necessary to assert one’s reasons in the appropriate forums, and if this is not possible, or it is seen that it is of no use, all that remains for a believer is to join Christ scourged, crowned with thorns, spit upon. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read this exhortation to the first Christians which can help on similar occasions: “Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” (Heb 12:3).
It is a difficult and painful thing to say the least, especially if one’s natural or religious family is involved, but the grace of God can make – and often has made – all of this an opportunity for purification and sanctification. It’s about having faith that, in the end, as happened with Jesus, the truth will triumph over lies. And the triumph will be better served, perhaps, with silence than with the most aggressive self-defense.
* * *
The final aim of allowing oneself to be ground, however, is not of an ascetic nature, but of a mystical one; it does not serve so much to mortify oneself, as to create communion. This is a truth that has accompanied Eucharistic catechesis since the early days of the Church. It is already present in the Didache (IX,4), a writing from apostolic times. Saint Augustine develops this theme in a wonderful way in one of his sermons to the people. He parallels the process that leads to the formation of the bread which is the Eucharistic body of Christ, and the process that leads to the formation of his mystical body which is the Church. He said:
Remember for a moment what wheat once was, when it was still in the field: the earth made it sprout, the rain nourished it; then there was the work of the man who took it to the threshing floor, threshed it, winnowed it and placed it in the granaries; from here he took it to grind and cook it and so, finally, it became bread.
Now think about yourselves: you were not and were created, you were brought to the threshing floor of the Lord, you were threshed…When you gave your names for baptism, you began to be ground down by fasting and exorcisms; then finally you came to the water, you were kneaded and you became one; when the fire of the Holy Spirit came, you were cooked and became the bread of the Lord. Here’s what you received. Therefore, just as you see that the bread prepared is one, so may you also be one, loving one another, maintaining the same faith, the same hope, and undivided charity.”
* * *
I conclude with an episode that actually happened, narrated in a book still on the market entitled “The Price to Pay,” and whose author, I believe, is still alive. It serves, better than long speeches, to realize the power contained in the solemn “I Am” of Jesus in the Gospel and in particular what I have commented on in this first meditation.
A few decades ago, in a Middle Eastern nation, two soldiers – one a Christian believer and the other not – were together acting as sentries at an arms depot. The Christian often took out, sometimes even at night, a small book and read it, attracting the curiosity and irony of his comrade in arms. One night, the latter had a dream. He found himself in front of a stream which however he was unable to cross. He saw a figure enveloped in light who told him: “To cross it, you need the bread of life.” Strongly impressed by the dream, in the morning, without knowing why, he asked, or rather forced, his companion to give him his mysterious book. (It was of course the book of the Gospels). He opened it and fell on the gospel of John. His Christian friend advised him to start with Matthew’s which is easier to understand. But he, without knowing why, insisted. He read everything in one go until he reached chapter six. But at this point, it would be good to listen to his story directly:
Having reached the sixth chapter, I stop, struck by the strength of a sentence. For a moment I think I’m the victim of a hallucination, and I put my eyes back on the book, at the point where I stopped… I just read these words: “…the bread of life.” The same words I heard a few hours ago in my dream. I slowly reread the passage in which Jesus, addressing his disciples, says: “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.” In that very moment, something extraordinary is unleashed within me, like an explosion of warmth and well-being… I have the impression of being caught up, carried aloft by the strength of a feeling I have never experienced, a violent passion, a love immeasurable for this man called Jesus.”
What this person later had to suffer for his faith confirms the authenticity of his experience. The word of God does not always act in such an explosive way, but the example, I repeat, shows us what divine strength is contained in the solemn “I Am” of Christ which with the grace of God we promise to comment on this Lent.

1.Imitation of Christ, IV, 11.
2.Letter to the Romans, IV,1.
3.Augustine, Sermo 229 (Denis 6 (PL 38, 1103)
4,Joseph Fadelle, Le prix à payer. Les Editions de l’Oeuvre, Paris 2010. Engl. trans. The Price to Pay, Ignatius Press, 2012.