Jesus continues his teaching on the Eucharist in the extract from John’s Gospel chosen for this Sunday. We are also given for our reflection the account of how the angel fed the Prophet Elijah with bread strengthening him for his long journey from Mount Carmel to Mount Sinai. We see this as another prefigurement of the Eucharist.
The Jewish leaders complain to each other about Jesus; as they had previously done they use an old argument that since they knew his father Joseph then he cannot be the one he claims to be. Jesus, naturally enough, has no truck with this and tells them to stop moaning and groaning. Instead he teaches them that he is the Son of the Father and the Bread of Life. Indeed, he goes further and says that because they want to reject him then they are not authentic followers of the Father.
Of course, the teaching about the Eucharist is beyond them. They cannot understand what he is telling them. For him to say that he is the Bread of Life and to insist that it is only those who partake of this bread who will live forever is something quite incomprehensible to them.
We can see that this dialogue with the Jews is working on two levels. The Jewish leaders are thinking on the level of the mundane and can only focus on what they can see and touch, what is explainable by human logic; while Jesus is working at the level of the divine and is speaking about supernatural realities.
Jesus’ listeners are bound to find what he says as beyond reason. They are tied to the realities and customs of this world and cannot see that there is a more important spiritual reality and that this is what Jesus is talking about. The whole thing ends up in mutual incomprehension.
We have already noted that in the Gospel of John there is no actual narrative of the Eucharist during the Last Supper. Instead John gives us the Washing of the Feet and the Farewell Discourse which is essentially a recapitulation of Christ’s teaching. Here instead in the follow-up to the Feeding of the Five Thousand we find the heart of his teaching on the Eucharist.
This makes sense because while the other Evangelists work up to the Last Supper on the night before Jesus died on the Cross and inevitably therefore see it as the culmination of his work on earth, John, however, gives us Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist as something that goes on throughout during his three years of public ministry.
We know that Jesus was present at many meals during his ministry; of course, they varied in character and some were surely more solemn than others. But we need to see that all these meals were linked in some way to the Eucharist. Many of them were a chance for him to deepen his teaching and others to manifest some other aspect of his work. In the Gospel of John the first of all these meals is the Marriage Feast of Cana which with the changing of water into wine has some of the strongest Eucharistic overtones.
Now here in the aftermath of the Feeding of the Five Thousand Jesus sets out his teaching on the Eucharist and while the Jews might find it incomprehensible we realise that his true purpose is to prepare the disciples to understand the meaning and significance of what was to become the central act of worship of the Church.
During the week the Vatican made an adjustment to Article 2267 of the Catholic Catechism. You will have heard about it on the news. The teaching on capital punishment has now, after a long period of study and reflection, been clarified and reformulated. The reworded section now reads: ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.’
The Church states that while in the past the death sentence may have been expedient in certain cases because of the difficulty of protecting society from murderers it is now clear that in almost every country the state has the means to incarcerate them effectively and so to protect the people at large from extreme acts of violence.
In recent years there has been great stress in the Church on the Gospel of Life and while we have placed strong emphasis on the protection of the unborn we should see this protection extending to the whole of the rest of life and so effectively prohibiting euthanasia. Now here it is being further refined and consequently it is now extended to the cessation of judicial killing. We see this Gospel of Life as a seamless robe extending from the first moment of conception through to the natural death of a person.
Although this change in teaching on capital punishment might appear to be something new it has actually been a long time in gestation. For the last fifty years the Popes have increasingly spoken out against capital punishment. For example, Pope John Paul II said in 1999 during a visit to the USA that ‘the death penalty is both cruel and unnecessary.’ Even when the Catholic Catechism was first drawn up it stated that capital punishment was regarded as permissible only in exceptional circumstances.
There are a couple of important arguments in favour of this new refinement of Catholic teaching. The first is the risk of error. We know that over the years there have been many miscarriages of justice. We have only to think of the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four to realise that, advanced as our judicial system may be, it is certainly not free from error. If capital punishment was still in effect in this country there is absolutely no doubt that these ten people would have been wrongly executed.
The Church realises that in the case of capital punishment the risk of error is a risk too far since it involves the extinguishing of life itself. It is not something that can ever be reversed.
Another argument is that no matter how serious the crime, a criminal needs the possibility of experiencing conversion. Criminals, like everyone else, need the opportunity to repent. And then there is the question of the dignity of the human person. No matter how despicable the acts of the worst criminals they ought not to be deprived of their human dignity. Life is a sacred gift from God and it is not permissible for the state to assume that it has the power to deprive a person of God’s gift of life.
It is worth stressing again that this adjustment is not a radical new teaching but rather what the Church calls a development of doctrine. As time passes and the Church reflects on the content of its teaching it gradually refines and adjusts what it proclaims in the light of increased intellectual understanding and the changing conditions of the world.
It is heartening to read in the new text of Article 2267 of the Catechism a pledge by the Church to, as it says, work with determination for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide. This is something that should involve us all. We should be deeply concerned that justice systems worldwide should focus on repentance and rehabilitation rather than retribution and revenge.