Thursday, August 02, 2007

Symbolism in Jn 6

Before I go on to address the symbolism in Jn 6, I want to first say, "I'm sorry" to Justin, who emailed me the questions that you will see below. He has been struggling with this chapter in John's gospel for a long time, and I'm afraid that I could have allayed his anxiety if only I would have addressed his questions sooner. "Better late than never," as they always say. I hope that this post will finally set your heart at ease.

Now, to the issue at hand.
I've been blessed with a challenge to the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Sacrament in my New Testament class (in the English dept. of my very secular school). We're studying the gospel of John right now and my professor was pretty insistent on his view that Jesus's Bread of Life discourse is symbolic. Even after some mild objects on my part he seemed to stick to his guns and nobody else seemed to challenge it, as usual. It definitely showed my true colors as a weak coward in apologetics, unlike my namesake St. Justin!
First of all, it is very good that you see this as a "blessing," and I think that you are correct. Any time someone challenges your faith you should see it as an opportunity to grow in that faith. That's how I learned a great deal of what I know today, by getting blasted in debates and then going and researching the answer.

Also, please don't be too hard on yourself because you didn't know how to answer him. Even when you know the answer, it can be hard to articulate it well, especially when you're in a classroom and everyone is against you. Keep your chin up, my friend. You're trying your best. St. Justin is not ashamed of you. He had to learn his faith just like you do.
Anyway, he challenged the class to interpret Our Lord's words on what it was to eat his flesh and drink his blood. People were answering things along the ilk of having faith in him, listening to his words, absorbing his teaching fully, down to the interior....
These are popular Protestant understandings of the Eucharist. Now, what a lot of Catholics don't realize is that we believe all of that too, but then we take it further. Protestants stop at "believe in me" whereas Catholics acknowledge that and then proceed to "eat my flesh and drink my blood." Jesus is speaking metaphorically AND literally in the Eucharistic discourse. I will explain this further in a moment.
The real clincher was when we moved on to the story of the born-blind man being cured by Jesus and its aftermath, John 9, towards the end. The professor used the last part of the episode to illustrate the gospel's tendencies to symbolism.
No one doubts that there is much symbolic language in John's Gospel. But, that doesn't mean that he can't also speak literally. Secondly, we even acknowledge that Jesus is speaking symbolically in Jn 6 --but only up to vs. 50. Starting at vs. 51 he switches to a very literal way of speaking and a study of Jn 6 shows that from the very beginning of the chapter, Jesus is progressively asking more and more of his listeners.
Reading it myself, I do get very seems that John 9:39-41 uses the terms "blind" and "see" symbolically. Jesus doesn't literally mean to make people blind! That same part also seems to be in the same form as the last part of the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:60-68, that is, a question-and-answer.
Well, the Q and A in Jn 9 could just as easily parallel Jn 6:30-50, and Catholics should have no problem with that. Like I said before, there is a time in Jn 6 where Jesus is speaking metaphorically. He is equating himself with the manna and coming to/believing in him with curing hunger/thirst.

But, there are various indications that at vs. 51 he switches to a literal manner of speaking. First, note the progression in Jn 6. First, he multiplies the loaves and the fishes. "Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted" (Jn 6:11). This is very similar to what he does at the Last Supper, taking the bread and wine, giving thanks, and then distributing it. Eucharist means "thanksgiving." Thus, this miracle forshadows the Eucharist, where Christ feeds the masses with his very self. The people begin to believe in him, but their faith is imperfect b/c they wish to make him their earthly king (cf. Jn 6:14-15).

From this act of faith, he calls for one still greater. Next, he compares himself to the manna which came from heaven. But, while the manna nourished for a time, if they will only believe in him, the true bread, they will be filled forever (cf. John 6:32-35). Yet again, the Jews show their lack of perfect faith (cf. John 6:36,41). But, Jesus is not done, for he demands the most sublime act of faith. And what is this sublime act of faith, that which will weed out the unbelievers and even cause some of his very disciples to depart from him? It is to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

See how he is gradually asking for a greater and greater act of faith? First they must believe that he is a spiritual savior, not an earthly one. Then, they must believe that he came down from heaven. Then they must believe that he can conquer all hunger and thirst. Finally, they must believe that he conquers hunger and thirst through the Eucharist. A literal interpretation of Jn 6:51ff makes sense in light of this progression.

There is also the fact that he never explained his supposed "metaphor," even though, if it was a metaphor it is likely he would have explained it, since he did this often (cf. Mt 16:11-12; Mk 4:34; Lk 12:41-43; John 3:3-11). Secondly, instead of saying they must eat his "body", a word often used in metaphorical ways, he says they must eat his "flesh," which there's really no getting around. Thirdly, when he sees that they are resistant to his teaching, he doesn't back off or soften it to "Oh, I mean you must believe in me." Instead, he is just more literal, using the word "trogo" for "eat" instead of "phago." After vs. 51, He is constantly emphasizing a literal interpretation. My flesh is food indeed, my blood is drink indeed. I mean, what more does it take to convince someone that Jesus is speaking literally here?
In google, I also hoped to find some literary Catholic analysis of the use of symbols and literal speech of the 4th Gospel, searching with the terms "literalism gospel John." I was then challenged by this site called , with its insidiously misleading domain name! It even used St. Augustine to argue against the Real Presence! What was most dismaying about the site, , was that it argued pretty well against all the conventional apologetics for the Eucharist! Please take a look for yourself.
His arguments have already been refuted 50 times over. I may even take a crack at it myself. You mustn't ever worry about sites like that. Have faith in the knowledge that the teaching of the Church has stood without refutation for 2,000 years. There is nothing new under the sun, and there is always an answer.

If you ever read something that you think refutes Church teaching, it's not b/c the Church it is error. It is because you simply do not know enough about the particular subject. It takes humility to admit this, but, like I said, this is also the first step towards being more convicted in your faith.
"I am in straits, be my surety!" Dear Lord this is tough one. The trouble is that we have to stick to a Johannine analysis, because I think its true that overlaying the Eucharistic understanding of John 6 is importing Synoptic understandings to John without trying to figure out what John is saying by itself.
Sorry about the long grievance, Nick. Please help!
I hope this post helps in some small way. Let me know if you have any follow-up questions. Sorry again that this comes to you so late.

Pax Christi,

1 comment:

Ninjesuit said...

thanks for the help, brother. Happy late St. Ignatius day. Magis ad majorem Dei gloriam!


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