Canon Macdonald-Radcliff is the Executive Director of the World Dialogue Council and formerly the Dean of All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt.

In the name of God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

In a context where much is controversial, it is surely safe to say that Chapter 6 of the Gospel of St John is not without incident.   In verses 1-15 Jesus feeds the 5000, in verses 16-21 Jesus walks on water, and now we come to what is sometimes called the “Bread of Life discourse” in verses 24-35. A passage that is rather different in terms of (lacking) exterior drama and yet one that presents in substance,  a discourse that looks both backwards and forwards in a uniquely deep and profound way of especial importance for what we are about now in this Eucharist or Mass.

But before getting to that further, it is just worth noting that while there is much in this Gospel that turns upon love, it is also a gospel of controversy, which is hardly surprising given the inherent antagonism between infinite love and the selfishness and pride conducive of hate toward the goodness which is their condemnation.

Jesus, love incarnate, who came to give abundant life to men, was thus relentlessly opposed by those who – ultimately for misguided reasons of self-interest – were  unwilling to surrender to   the reality of who he was and is. Thus, in this gospel a truly epic conflict of the ages was fought out to the end.  But in addition, the Fourth Gospel is distinguished by being so clearly the gospel of supernaturalism:

The key point,  around which all the controversy rages here is the specific claim of Jesus to supernatural powers, to which,  only a very particular relation to God would be adequate:  namely participation in the Godhead in such a way that only the understanding, later articulated in the theology of the Trinity,  could comprehend it.

Thus it is the marks of this that are relentlessly and cumulatively presented:

  • Jesus is superior, not only to the law of Moses, but to physical laws.
  • He assumes superiority to Nichodemus, “the teacher of Israel”,
  • he condemns the errors and injustice of the high priest, and
  • stands before the Roman governor as an avowed king,

before whom he is, in the end condemned to the death, that is the dark prelude of sacrifice to the work of salvation and redemption attested by the ultimate triumph of the Resurrection.

So, with all that said, what we have here – in its narrative of the supernatural and ceaseless struggle against forces of worldy darkness , is a text also imbued with the peculiar literary genius of the Greek world of the Gospel’s earthly writer in Patmos  (which site some in the congregation have but recently visited).

This is again a perspective which clearly distinguishes this Gospel from the synoptics.


But let us return for now to that scene down by the Sea of Galilee for it is there that this particular teaching is given by Christ after the feeding of the five thousand.

And the chapter begins with an arguably deeply significant framing in terms of the time of year:  “the Passover was at hand” [1]

When the crowd arrives he admonishes them to labour for the food endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give them.

Here, it is quite clear that Jesus is speaking of himself. The Father has sealed (stamped with His seal, authenticated) Jesus, his hearers are told,  from which it follows that they should believe in him, Yet instead they, or some of them, reply that their ancestors were fed with manna in the desert and it is rhetorically asked: “What can you do to match that?”

Jesus replies that it was the Father, not Moses, who gave them bread from heaven (arton ek tou oùranoû), and that the Father has now given them the true (Alethenon) bread from heaven, which comes down from heaven and which gives life to the world.

Typically for this Gospel, attention is kept focused on the person of Jesus and his fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

In this instance, the emphasis is upon the Exodus when God fed his people through the ministry of Moses. Thus Jesus is now both Moses and the life-giving manna.

When the people then ask, perhaps with irony, “Lord, give us this bread always” (6:34), Jesus launches into a series of claims which could only provoke his most skeptical hearers: saying “I am”, “the bread of life”, (in contrast to the loaves and fishes). He has come down from heaven to do his father’s will and to ensure exclusive rights (so to speak) for all who come to him. And that “All who believe in him will have (a) eternal life and (b) be raised by him upon the last day (6,41)

Throughout here what is profoundly present in the background is the book of Exodus (Chapter 3) and the whole complex of events leading up to and including the escape to Sinai: beginning with the Passover, liberation from bondage, the feeding in the wilderness and being giving of the Torah.

And we must remember too that the Passover meal expressed the action of God in the past made relevant to the present through sacrifice.

The eating of the Passover sacrificial meal made real to subsequent generations of the Hebrew people,  (in an act of anamnesis) God’s act of liberating love revealed to them in the historical events of the Exodus.

Nevertheless,  when these words were uttered here at this point, before Jesus’ death, their purpose was to show his disciples that their master was in fact the new Passover lamb.

And that in the very near future he would actually be that sacrifice.

This also makes possible the intent that readers and we here gather today – though long afterwards, can apply this to their eucharist when they gathered for it.

One consequence of this point is that the original disciples might at this stage in the narrative have been somewhat mystified, since the primary meaning of Jesus’ words is that addressed to the Church of the Ages.  The primary aim is to record Jesus’ teaching that He is the life-giving sacrifice bringing liberation and life to all who accept him as such.  

But there was also a very particular force to the parallel with the Manna that the Old Testament records fed probably several hundred thousand of the Jewish people, every day for forty years.

(Which has even led some to suggest that this involved the modern day equivalent of up to 300 train trucks full of manna and that this amount was collected for the camp each day (with twice as much at the end of the week to allow for there being no work done on Shabbat).

It is all of that background that brings out the force of what he means when Jesus said that the bread his Father gives through him makes the miracle of the manna to be “nothing”  in comparison. 

And From this too we can deduce that what he speaks of is no mere symbol for it is nothing less than God in Christ that we encounter in the Eucharist down to this present day and to say and to apprehend that is to approach something profound indeed.

But what about a point upon which I touched earlier namely that this Gospel is different from the Synoptics in both method and style and that this reflects quite powerfully the world of Greek thought through which it is set out. This has great significance on several levels.

For example, to pick up a point made earlier, what is presented here is very much not the story of the life of  Jesus the man from Nazareth, but rather a powerful presentation of the supernatural Christ. It is very much not the purpose of this gospel to give a full account of the earthly ministry of Jesus. [2]

Remembering then that this work originated in a place and atmosphere charged with Greek speculative thought, it also reflects a new intellectual endeavor –  namely to set out Christianity at a time when Gnosticism was spreading and highly varied speculation concerning Jesus and his work was rife (which is to say a world not that far from ours today)

Irenaeus states, more specifically, that the gospel was written to counteract the teachings of one Cerinthus[3], an Egyptian who in true gnostic fashion separated God from the world-maker, whom he made a subordinate intermediate being (perhaps an Angel). He also distinguished the earthly being Jesus from the heavenly Messiah who descended upon the man Jesus at his baptism and became the Word incarnate.  It was in opposition to this theory, and in modification of Philo’s doctrine of the Logos as the intermediary between God and the world, that John asserted that “the Word was God” and the Word in Jesus became flesh, a thesis which he sought to prove by reference to his earthly life.

The prologue states thus that it was that Word, who in Jesus became incarnate, was pre-existent, and the creator of the world life of men. The subsequent narrative is based upon these pre-suppositions, and thus drives the unique character of work.

All of which invites a further consideration, namely if this presents what the Greeks might on the one hand have seen as an Epic drama how closely akin is it to Greek tragedy?

Remember that,  “The subject uppermost in the teaching of Aeschylus is the relation of Man, God, and Fate.” And the same project is essentially that too of the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides.  Indeed, the closing lines of Oedipus Colonus sum up the Greek conception in these words:

For know, ’tis all
Decreed by fate, and all the work of Heaven.

Does not the Gospel echo this framework – well in purely literary terms I think a compelling case can be made [4] after all one has only to consider the following points:

  • The theme of the Gospel is essentially that of the superhuman in its play upon the human, and the crime and folly of men in refusing to accept the divine, to receive the light.
  • The gospel begins with a prologue (1: 1-18) in which not only is the theme stated, but the issue is forecast. Light comes into the world, but it is not apprehended. Thus too did Euripides begin each play he wrote.
  • The discourses of Jesus echoes the style of the great Monologues, like those of Prometheus, Creon or Ajax,
  • Then again, the action of the gospel considered as a drama centers in the (reversal) of situation culminating in his crucifixion a fate surely likely to induce pity and fear (to recall Aristotle – though you will note I am not discussing Hamartia and Catharsis here)

Does all this not echo the hero of a tragedy who moves on to his fate, often impelled by elements beyond his control…?

But my dwelling on this historic cultural parallel – superficial as I ultimately take it to be  -brings out something rather deep and perhaps surprising. 

Namely that our sense of sadness in the face of what we commonly call the tragic stands in relation to one of those rare things, namely something arguably unique to Western Civilization and that is the dramatic concept of tragedy itself.

As George Steiner observes in the opening lines of his book on the subject

Oriental Art knows violence, grief and the stroke of natural or contrived disaster, the Japanese theatre is full of ferocity and ceremonial death. But that representation of personal suffering and heroism which we call tragic drama is distinctive of the Western tradition” and he goes on to say even more specifically that “The idea and the vision of man which it implies are Greek.” (The Death of Tragedy)

Thus, if we look at the world of the Old Testament (and of Jonah in our first reading) not to mention Job, we find that the concept of tragedy is alien, for, in the Judaic world, it is all ultimately about justice, and the appeal to justice, so that even when angry, Yahweh is ultimately a just God. And more than that, this is a vision of the universe as ultimately accessible to reason.

Turn to the Iliad by contrast and things are different: where the fall of Jerusalem or Jericho in the Bible had been a consequence of justice in the face of contumacy and disobedience and is thus all part of God’s great purposes, the fall of Troy “is the first great metaphor of
tragedy” (Steiner) for it is brought about through the contest of human passions and hatreds and a destiny that is ultimately arbitrary.

And so it was that the walls of Troy fell forever, while those of Jerusalem will rise again —either in this world or the next— when the world is redeemed and the souls of men are restored to grace.

In the Iliad, the universe itself is ultimately arbitrary and the plaything of capricious forces personified by the gods in a cosmos that is thus outside the scope of justice and even reason. Moreover, the great story unfolds within an architecture of catastrophe: things end badly. Yet, as Thucydides reminds us, in his great (tragic) story of the Peloponnesian wars, the nature of man is such that we keep on sailing for Sicily, as it were, even though we really know it will be to our ruin.

Yet there is a deeper paradox here to be brought to the surface:

Namely that true tragedy seems to require a universe of the real —which is to say transcendent— meaning, which is why it is so plausible to argue that in a post-modern universe —where the possibility of such meaning is effectively denied—

And that we arrive ultimately not merely with Fukuyama at the end of history but with Steiner at the end of tragedy as well.

We are left, as it were,  with mere angst and the silent scream of an Edvard Munch painting.

To make the point another way, ‘tragedy is that form of art which requires the intolerable burden of God’s presence’ which is why George Steiner argued that true tragedy is now dead because “His shadow no longer falls upon us as it fell on Agamemnon, or Macbeth or Athalie” (ibid).

And here we come the final and truly major point – namely that if true tragedy requires a realist metaphysic to pose, it requires nothing less than the message of Christ,  as alone as adequate to enable our escape from its clutches.

And THAT is why the Gospel of St John will never be comprehended by tragedy but overwhelms it through the message of Christ which is our Salvation


[1] See 6:4, The fourth Gospel lays particular emphasis on Passover time as the setting for Jesus’ final discourse and Passion. Jesus then feeds the five thousand (6:5-14). “The people” attempt to make him king and he withdraws (6:14-15). He stills the storm on the lake  and walks on the water and the people follow across the lake (6: 1 6-24).

[2] It is largely silent concerning his work, save on a few special occasions which illustrate the theme it announces. Whole tracts of time are passed over in silence. The events of only a little over twenty days are recorded in any detail, and in every case, they are presented from a special point of view best stated in the author’s own words, “These are written that ye may believe that Jesus is Christ the Son of God and that believing ye may have life in his name” (20:3I).

[3] “Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being. 2. Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavour to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1, Chapter 26 paragraph 1) Cerinthus was of the Gnostic influence which taught that the divine God was too pure and perfect to be involved the material world.  Therefore, the world was created by a lesser god–a power far removed from the supreme divine being.

[4] And indeed was in a fascinating paper by D Butler Pratt: “The Gospel of John from the Standpoint of Greek Tragedy” in The Biblical World, Vol. 30, No. 6 (Dec.), 1907.

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