The Son as Sacrament

The Eucharistic Poetry of John the Evangelist

The longer I have lived on this earth, the more I have fallen in love with the Eucharist and the sweet song of love it sings to me. As I drink in the Living Water of God’s word each day, I am swept away by the overwhelming flood of grace that flows from Christ’s eternal spring into my thirsty soul. The words of Scripture I read stir my beating heart in new and mysterious ways, and lead me to the table where I am fed the Bread of Life and experience more deeply what it means to believe.

Nowhere do the notes of this sacramental melody resonate more beautifully for me than in the Gospel of John. From first to last, it is an enduring mystical poem of the Real Presence of Christ, spoken with joy, tears, and a beauty so poignant it causes me to ache within for the time when I may once more draw near to the Eucharist and receive it with joy.

Section 1: From the Word to the Table

John’s Gospel serves as a blueprint for our understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist. It is a love-inspired Liturgy, laying out the foundational truths upon which the Eucharist unfolds for believers in the Mass. In the first eleven chapters of his Gospel, John takes us through a prayerful journey of hope, preparing our hearts for what the Eucharist will call forth from the people of God. These chapters are filled with Old Testament imagery and high sacramental theology as the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection is revealed.

We come into the celebration of the Eucharist through the waters of our Baptism, bringing our gifts of bread and wine and our broken selves as a harvest offering to be presented on the altar as living showbread. These gifts become the perpetual grain and drink offering that Christ transforms through his suffering into the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation. Only as we prepare our gifts and our hearts, take in the holy word, and surrender our sin to the Shepherd of our souls, are we able to approach the table to receive the food that truly satisfies.

As we explore the imagery and the flow of this section of John’s Gospel, we can see how the evangelist presents his sacramental theology through pictures of bread and baptism, abundant wine and living water, the light of truth and love’s gentle leading, the servant King and the Passion that stirs the hearts of men. Throughout the text, John continually illustrates how the revelation of God’s salvation in the humanity of Christ collides with the crumbling foundation upon which the wicked, in their arrogance and disbelief, build their hope. And yet, these great signs of love open the way of life for those who bring their brokenness to the place where love has laid everything down on their behalf.

Called to the Royal Wedding Feast: John 1–2

Though John does not write about the Last Supper in the same way the other evangelists do, his Gospel nonetheless is filled with sacramental imagery. It is as if he stands in the heavenly realms, looking back upon the life of Christ with an eternal vision of man’s redemption. As John begins his Gospel, the Word made flesh bursts upon the world (John 1), crashing through the darkness of sin with grace and glory, as Jesus rises from the waters of Baptism to identify with humanity, calling us to new life in his name.

At the wedding feast at Cana (John 2), we see the Eucharistic banquet prefigured in the abundance of wine spilling over from the earthen jars the Bridegroom presents to his bride. Jesus the King accepts the invitation from the Queen-mother to prepare the banquet table for the Wedding Feast, though only in a symbolic way, since his hour is yet to come. Later, the Holy One enters the temple in Jerusalem to cleanse it of the old wine of dead worship, making way for the new sacrifice, the Body broken, and the Blood shed for the sins of men.

Born Anew, Born from Above: John 3

As Jesus meets with Nicodemus (John 3), we see clearly how Baptism — being born from above of water and Spirit — leads to the offering of the Lamb who is lifted up before men. The testimony of the Scriptures is fulfilled in the sacrifice of the Son who brings eternal life to those who will receive him. The darkness that blinds the eyes of this teacher of the law gives way to the light of truth that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to bring eternal life to all who believe.

The celebration of the Eucharist brings us by word and sacrament to that moment when the Savior is lifted up before us in the once-for-all sacrifice that frees us from sin and draws us to himself. Like Nicodemus, we must allow the word to carry us from the darkness of sin to the light of new life in Christ.

A Harvest that Feeds with Food that Truly Satisfies: John 4–5

In his time with the woman of Samaria (John 4), our Lord draws up, from the well of his love, the Living Water that overflows into her empty heart. She comes before the Savior an empty, broken vessel longing to be satisfied by more than earthly pleasures. Jesus shares with her the mysteries of true worship in his name. He is the heavenly Bridegroom who comes to the well to call his bride from her adulteries to be made ready for the great wedding feast to come. His word fills her heart to overflowing, and she is sent forth from her encounter with the Savior to call others to come and partake of the food that truly satisfies.

Just as the Word of Christ prepares the town to receive Jesus the Bread of life, the Liturgy of the Word prepares our hearts for the table. The Samaritans come before the Savior as a harvest ready for reaping. Our true satisfaction in the celebration of the Eucharist comes as Christ receives the bread and wine, the harvest of our life offering, and turns it into his Body and Blood. And just like the official’s son, we are healed by the word that enters into that sacred moment to transform us from death to life in the Eucharist.

Following these stories of grace and healing, John presents us with the harsh reality of how the truth of the Gospel confronts the unbelief of men (John 5). Jesus challenges the people to accept or reject the authority of his word, the word that brings life from death. We see that we cannot come to the table unless we accept that the word of God, spoken from the beginning by the prophets of old, points the way to the One who has come in the flesh in his Father’s name.

The True Bread Come Down: John 6

The heart of John’s Eucharistic theology is prefigured in the feeding of the five thousand and sealed by the scene of the Great I AM who walks upon the winds and the waves (John 6). He is the perfect love that casts out all fear and draws men to the safety of heaven’s shore. The beautiful Bread of Life discourse is perhaps the most powerful explanation of what the Eucharist is all about. Jesus states with poetic brilliance his call for us to consume him in the bread and wine that will become his Body and Blood. While the people cannot fully comprehend the true significance of Jesus’ words, there is nonetheless no mistaking what he is calling them to do. The words he uses and the way he connects those words to the story of the manna in the desert cause many to turn away at such a hard saying. In fact, it is the only time in all the Gospels where we witness people leaving Christ for doctrinal reasons.

The Eucharist draws those who seek to be filled, and yet Jesus calls us to believe that he is the True Bread come down from Heaven, the bread that gives life to the world. It is indeed a hard saying that causes many to walk away from this incredible reality; yet we cannot compromise this profound truth. Only those who are willing to say with Peter that Jesus is Savior and Son of God, the One who gives his flesh and blood for us to consume, are welcomed at his table. The Eucharist is the real manna from heaven, the true grain and drink offering that is poured out eternally once and for all upon the altar of the cross for the sins of men.

A Fountain Flowing: John 7–8

At the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7), Jesus’ identity and authority are challenged once more. It is no accident that this story comes immediately after the sixth chapter of John. It represents the division among men over the Eucharist: those who view Jesus with blinded eyes, and those whose hearts are stirred in reverence and holy fear. This division leads to Jesus pouring out his heart on the last and greatest day of the feast. He is the Great High Priest, lifted up before the people, pouring out his Living Water and calling out to all who are ready to receive him to come and drink.

It has been argued by some that the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) is not truly Scripture, or if it is inspired, it is out of place in this context. However, the story so perfectly represents Christ’s response to those who challenge the reality of the Eucharist. As the angry mob confronts Jesus, he traces in the dirt, calling to mind the prophecy of Jeremiah 17:13, a condemnation of the sinner who rejects the truth. Such a sinner will dwell in parched places, and his sin will be written in the earth as a testimony against him for forsaking the fountain of Living Water.

Jesus is the Light of the World, One with the Father, lifted up from humiliation to glory, revealed as God and yet rejected of men. He saves us through the truth of his life, the truth that sets men free, the truth that was present from the beginning in eternity past. Jesus is the One Abraham rejoiced to see — the Great I AM!

Leading by the Light: John 9–11

John continues his Eucharistic refrain by exploring the theme of light even further. Jesus brings forth new sight from mud for the man born blind (John 9), bringing him the Light of the World. Some will see this light shining in believers’ eyes, but will refuse to accept that these once-blind individuals are new creations in Christ because they themselves are blinded and steeped in the sin that remains.

The parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10) shows how the Lord will lead his people from their penned-up lives through the narrow door of the cross into the wilderness of trials, where they may be fed in good pasture as in Psalm 23. Jesus is the One who has the power to lay down his life for his sheep and the power to take it up again. No one can snatch the ones the Father has given him from his hand. This truth is why Jesus returns to the place where he received his baptism from John. He comes to seek communion with his Father in the sign of his living testimony that the Eucharist returns us again and again to the power and promises of our Baptism.

Jesus, the One who walks in Light, sees the approaching night. He raises Lazarus from the sleep of death (John 11) because he is the Resurrection and the Life. The God who weeps for the brokenness and the sorrow of man is moved to turn dead flesh into new life, removing the grave clothes of our humanity and revealing himself in his glory. Jesus brings the light of his life to the people, knowing this will lead to his death at the hands of those who continue to reject him.

The Eucharist is a celebration of light revealed, of love leading us from the graveside of our sinfulness to the table where we are fed the Bread of Life. This is the place where we encounter the One who laid down his life for his people, who calls us again and again through the Eucharist to live out the power of our Baptism as we die to sin and self and rise to new life in the glory of our Savior. In him, we are called to face the rejection of this world as we walk through the dark valley along the narrow road into the Kingdom of God.

Servanthood and Salvation: John 12

At Bethany, Jesus is anointed for his coming burial (John 12). He enters the holy city in triumph and humility, riding on a donkey’s colt, recalling Zechariah 9:9–17. The Lord, for the sake of the blood of the covenant, is setting the prisoners free, bringing victory over enemies, and pouring out the abundance of his sacrificial love like wine. As the Greeks come seeking his wisdom, so will the Gentiles come seeking the One who brings salvation.

The Father confirms his Son, even as the darkness comes to take away the Light. Those who will not believe are self-condemned (Isaiah 6:9–10) as their ears fail to comprehend, their eyes fail to perceive, and their dull hearts refused to understand and be healed. They will be judged on the Last Day.

All the preparations for the Eucharist may seem like dead rituals to those outside the faith, but for us who believe, they are the glorious steps along the road of salvation that leads to Calvary. Our Savior comes before us as the suffering, sacrificial servant, confirmed by the words of Scripture and our presentation of the gifts. We come seeking the wisdom of the cross, which is folly to the rest of the world. Though justice reveals our sin, it is mercy that leads us to our redemption in Christ.

Section Two: The Love Song that Sings Us into the Kingdom

Beginning with chapter 13, our Lord begins a living parable and a high priestly prayer that lifts the hearts of his disciples from the earth, carrying them where they can experience the holy contradictions that the mystery of the Eucharist reveals. In this brief time before Christ enters the hour of his Passion, he prepares his friends for his coming death and resurrection through humble words and actions so powerful and so profound the disciples cannot fully grasp their meaning.

Every sentence spoken, every gesture made, and every step taken toward the cross allow the disciples to step through the veil that separates sinful humanity from the heights of heaven. They see the God who stoops low to wash dirty feet, yet stands as the Great I AM before the throne of heaven. He is the Savior who is so intimately connected to his people that his life and strength flows into them, and his knowledge turns them from sorrowful servants into faithful friends.

This tender song of salvation will gently lead the disciples from the hidden halls where wisdom is whispered in the dark to the altar of Golgotha where the truth will be lifted up for all to see. In this moment of sacrifice and self-surrender, there is unity in the Body for all who believe. Though trials and times of sorrow await them, it is the joy of the One who endures the cross and scorns its shame that will drive the disciples forward to the divine appointment that is theirs.

These chapters speak so clearly to the grace that is revealed in the Eucharistic prayers, to their transformative power that changes the bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. To the world, the prayers that precede the consecration sound like superstitious syllables, magical gibberish from misguided men. But to those who have heard the call of eternity, it is the sound of a mighty earthquake and a tearing veil as the entrance to the Holy of Holies is forever opened up to those who have passed from death to life.

As we witness the words and deeds of the joyful, suffering servant, we cannot help but be transported back to that sacred moment when heaven and earth are reconciled, where the Bridegroom and the Bride are brought together, as justice and mercy reveal themselves as one poetic letter of love to the ones our Lord came to bring to the wedding banquet of heaven.

The Slave Who Set the Example: John 13–14

In the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13), Christ’s gesture of service is so shocking that Peter is reluctant to receive it. And yet the Teacher and Lord of their lives plays out this parable of his humble descent from the throne of heaven to the halls of humanity. Better still, the Savior calls his disciples to follow his example of stooping low enough to bring the Son of God to the souls of men.

Jesus offers words of comfort to his troubled brothers (John 14), revealing himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When we see the Son, we see the Father and receive the promise of the Spirit. In Christ, we have the power to ask for and receive all that we need. Those who love the Lord and keep his commandments will experience the Father’s perfect love and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They will never be abandoned, and forever experience the peace that carries the faithful through the trials of life to the triumph of salvation.

These chapters are saturated with sacramental imagery, as the Lord shows the perfection of the Eucharist as the ultimate act of self-giving. The waters of Baptism have removed our sin and made us clean; yet still we must be cleansed from the effects of sin in those dark places our human feet so often take us. In the moments of selfish betrayal and fearful denial, we see that such falls lead those who despair like Judas to an eternity of emptiness, and those who return like Peter to the grace of Christ. We know that we who sin and repent in the confessional will once again be called as faithful servants to come to the table where we may sit and sup with our Savior God.

Sorrowful Love Flowing Down, Joyful Love Lifted High: John 15–17

As the perfect prayer of love continues to flow from the lips of the Lord, we see the image of the vine and the branches (John 15). The lifeblood of Christ will flow through our lives as we bear the fruit that comes from our connection to the source of all our being. We are commanded to love without measure and to stand as one against the world’s hatred. The Holy Spirit imparts to us the truth that turns us into powerful witnesses who carry the message of salvation to a weary world. As we abide in the vine, we receive the greatest commandment: to love others as the Father has loved the Son and the Son has loved us.

Those who are in Christ will carry out the work of the Spirit, the One who convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16). The Holy Spirit will be our counselor, revealing the will of the Father, judging the wicked, and consoling the grieving as he glorifies the Son through the word of truth he declares to the believer. Sorrow will give way to joy, discouragement to conviction, and the trial of our transformation to the new life that causes the painful past to fade away.

Finally, Jesus comes to the place where his love for his disciples overflows into the life of his Bride, the Church (John 17). He prays that those whom he has called will be protected from the enemy of their souls. His prayer is so powerful that it spills out into the future generations of believers, who will be led to salvation by the work of his faithful disciples, consecrating them to the truth and revealing his glory in their lives.

Those who share in the Eucharist experience the overflowing grace that transforms barren souls into fruitful followers, convicts and conforms our spirits as we witness his truth to humanity, and reveals all that Christ is in his sacrificial love for the world. Each time we celebrate this sacred mystery, we remember the love that flowed so freely from our Savior as he poured out his heart in sorrow and joy before the souls of men.

The prayers that lead us to the table lead us into the world, where we will face trials and temptations as we work to win the lost for Jesus. In the Eucharist, we experience the greatest hope: that we may know Christ more fully and make him more fully known, as the Bride is made ready for the Eucharistic wedding feast that is to come.

Section Three: The Passion Play — John 18–21

In the final chapters of John’s Gospel, we experience the crucifixion of Christ, his resurrection on that first Easter morn, and the final commissioning of Peter and the disciples. It is the story of perfect love overcoming the hatred of wicked men, redeeming a broken world, and reconciling a band of brothers and sisters in their unity and purpose of shepherding the flock of Christ’s Church.

It is fitting that it is John’s retelling of the Passion that is read on Good Friday, for its somber tone and majestic voice speak so perfectly to what is at the heart of the celebration of the Eucharist. Throughout the story, Jesus remains ever the triumphant, sacrificial King of kings, who is in complete control of his destiny, who, for the joy that is set before him, walks with conviction and perfect clarity from the garden to the cross, and from the tomb to the shores of new beginnings with the ones he loves.

Though it would seem appropriate to approach the Passion of Christ with sorrow, it is more fitting that we stand before this sacred scene in joy and awe. From Gethsemane to Golgotha and beyond, we are touched by a mystery so deep that we, like the witnesses of the crucifixion and resurrection, cannot help but be overwhelmed. In our love we are left with no words but “My Lord and my God!” It is in that spirit of holy fear that we should receive in the Eucharist this sacred sign of God’s perfect love for the world.

The Great I Am Revealed: John 18–19

With the arrest of Jesus (John 18) we witness the One who is in complete control of the outcome of his sacred mission to humanity. He stands before the raging mob, bathed in the light of heaven, speaking his divine name as wicked men are brought low before him. Peter’s denial is a reminder that even the strongest of human souls will stumble and fall without Jesus. In the false trial before Caiaphas, we see the contrast between Jesus, the true sacramental representative, and the high priest who, in his fallen state, surrenders his place as the mediator for man’s sin. As Jesus stands before Pilate, this disparity between truth and falsehood is given its highest form. Jesus is revealed as the King of kings before the powerless ruler, who can only do the will of God by condemning the Messiah to death.

By his actions, Pilate proclaims Jesus as King, and the King is scourged, crowned with thorns, mocked, and crucified as the suffering servant (John 19). He is the One who pours out his lifeblood for the world, whose seamless garment of salvation shows him to be the true unblemished High Priest and the divine Bridegroom who will be wed to his Bride. As he is dying, Jesus gives his mother, the new Eve, and John, the beloved disciple, to one another as a sign of our unity within the Church.

Jesus calls out, “I thirst!” and receives the wine as he drinks the final cup of the Passover and completes the sacred mystery. He then cries aloud that his work is finished and breathes his last. His side is pierced and the flow of blood and water reveal another sacramental image of the baptismal waters and the blood of the New Covenant that bring salvation to the world.

On the altar of the Eucharist, our Great High Priest gives his life for the world. Only Christ, who wore the seamless garment of sinless humanity, is fit to be the perfect representative before the Father in heaven. Only by his perfect sacrifice on the cross are we restored to the Kingdom of God. The Church is made one in the Body and the Blood that is broken and poured out for us in the Eucharist. Our salvation his been completed by the One who has called us from darkness to light, from our baptism to the table.

Resurrection and Restoration: John 20–21

Jesus is resurrected and reveals himself to the women and his disciples, and through the disciples to the Church (John 20). Through the sacrifice of Christ, they now have the authority to bind and to loose, to forgive sin and to retain it. In Thomas, we who have not seen and yet believe are blessed by the Savior’s words as he reveals his wounds and calls for all to receive the Holy Spirit. The chapter closes by revealing the purpose of the book, that in believing these great signs revealed by the Gospel, we may have life in Jesus’ name.

John concludes his letter of love with one final scene that brings all of the sacramental signs together in the water, the sacred meal, and the commissioning of Peter. It is a tender act of forgiveness and restoration as Jesus affirms Peter’s love three times — once for every time that Peter denied the Lord. And yet it is so much more, for Jesus calls Peter to feed the lambs, tend the sheep, and feed the sheep. Peter will represent the Church as he calls and cares for new believers, instructs the faithful, and continues to feed them through the great sacrament of our salvation. Even in the prophecy of his death, Peter will show the world the way the Church is to give glory to God in following Jesus to the cross.

The final postscript about John is a testimony about our call to surrender to the work Jesus has given us to do. All of us are called to follow the Lord as the Church, the Bride of Christ, is made ready for the wedding feast. There is so much more that could be written of Christ, and the Church continues to write that story until the end of time. This is the story we continue to live out as we come through our baptism to the Eucharistic table, and are sent forth as commissioned disciples to win the world for the One who poured out his life in perfect love.

A Few Concluding Thoughts

This is our Gospel. This is the power and presence of the Eucharist revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. From the waters of our baptism we are called to give our lives to the Lord, to become fishers of men, to seek the light of God’s grace, and to be continually born from above through the great signs of our salvation. We are to take in the word and consume the Eucharist, and then go forth to be a sign of contradiction and conviction to the lost and those who are seeking eternal life.

As you read the Gospel of John, I hope you will see its power with new eyes and fall more deeply in love with the Savior who has given himself to the Church as the Bread of Life. I pray you may seek to understand the great sacramental mystery of the Eucharistic feast. May its incredible beauty and consistent message of holy awe and wonder fill your heart and lead you again and again to the table where you may be fed with the Eucharist and truly satisfied.

Mark C. McCann About Mark C. McCann

Mark C. McCann is an author and ministry consultant with more than 30 years experience in ministry to children, youth, and families, having worked in schools, diocesan offices, and Christian radio. He newest book is To the Ends of the Earth, a 40-week study for Catholic men, published by Our Sunday Visitor. He currently lives in Connecticut with his Proverbs 31 wife and three incredible children and lives out his call each day to be a man of words. His ministry website is www.wordsnvisions.com.

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