The concept of a lectionary dates back to the fourth or fifth century of Christianity, and most likely even further to Jewish practice. When Jesus took his turn to lector in the Synagogue (Luke 4: 14-31), it is clear that the day’s text from Isaiah—which would set off a firestorm—was “handed to him by an attendant.” This suggests, at least, some kind of predetermination of texts, and certainly for feasts. After the Council of Trent (1547-1563) Pius V composed what we call the Tridentine Mass, in use until 1970. There was a lectionary, to be sure, but since the same readings were used every year on the same day, the Scripture readings were just folded into the Mass text, as they were read in Latin by the celebrant. The entire Mass could be celebrated from one book. The Gospel might be read in English simultaneously by another priest, or after the Latin reading by the celebrant, but this was not universally required. There were two readings every Sunday, one an Epistle and the second reading from the Gospel, which: Pius V’s missal would draw from any of the four Gospels depending on season and feast.
Vatican II (1962-65) was dominated by a majority of the world’s bishops who, among other things, were concerned that the Word of God played an insignificant role in the life and worship of the Church, From these concerns the liturgical architects drafted the three-year lectionary we use today. I was in my 20’s when the new lectionary came into being, and I remember the first thing that caught my ear: there were now three readings at Sunday Mass, not two, and the first reading was just about always from the Hebrew Scripture. This was a monumental step forward, though preachers to this day labor to make this point. The second major change was the three-year cycle of readings we spoke of earlier. It is worth noting that mainstream Protestant Churches—Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist—also use a lectionary very similar to ours. Congregation-based Churches—Evangelicals, Baptists, Congregationalists, for example—do not, as their theories of church authority are community based and do not depend upon outside ruling bodies.
This Sunday’s Gospel is the fourth of five from John 6, and as we have seen so far there is a progression of “radical” actions and statements of Jesus now building to a climax. Similarly, there is, to say the least, a process of alienation among his hearers. After the multiplication of the loaves, they are ready to make him king. The next Sunday they seek more “signs;” last week they begin murmuring. This coming week they no longer hide their growing anger and/or confusion. However, John observes that they quarreled about Jesus “among themselves,” leaving room for even further alienation next week. The objects of their displeasure are two-fold. First, there is an unmistakable claim of divinity in this segment. Phrases like “living forever” and the fact that Jesus (and only Jesus) can and will give this bread went far beyond any claims of Moses and would have struck observers as bordering upon blasphemy. The very concept of life after death was new to Jewish thought and still not accepted by groups such as the Sadducees in Jesus’ day. But their greater consternation seems to come from the equation of this living bread with his own body.
There is a critical translational note that needs to be inserted here. In John, unlike other New Testament writers, the chosen word for Jesus’ body is sarx, not soma. Both words would have translated logically, but soma carries the meaning of a living, breathing animated life form. Sarx on the other hand is essentially raw meat, what you might see in your neighborhood deli behind the counter. Thus the command to eat the sarx and drink the blood is about as literal as one can get: it essential translates to cannibalism, and it was heard that way, even by the Romans many years later. Joachim Jeremias in his The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (1955, 2014) correctly includes this paragraph from John 6 with the Synoptic Gospels’ Last Supper narratives as the basis for the reality of the Eucharist.
Why, as the last of all the New Testament writers, did John choose such a controversial turn of phrase? The answer may rest with the times. If this Gospel was finalized around 100 A.D., as seems likely, the Church was wrestling with heresies about the nature of Jesus, some of these inspired (probably loosely) by the highly spiritual and metaphysical world of Plato. A predominant heresy of the time was Docetism, which taught that Jesus only appeared to be real but was rather some sort of phantom experience. Thus we have John’s dramatic response: the Eucharist as the actual flesh of Christ. A walk-off homer for Christian belief.