Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A modern composer and the Canticles and the Psalms

Arvo Pärt in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, two years ago

A modern composer and the Canticles and the Psalms:

Anglican Canticles and Arvo Pärt’s Magnifcat, Nunc Dimittis and De Profundis

Patrick Comerford


The Canticles and the Psalms are traditional parts of Anglican spirituality, and the use of the canticles in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer is a deeply formative part and parcel of Anglican liturgy, Anglican tradition, and Anglican spirituality.

The beauty of the choral tradition that has been built up around the canticles, including, in particular, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis within Evening Prayer, has attracted many to Anglicanism.

At present, Choral Evensong is being broadcast twice weekly on BBC Radio 3 – live at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and repeated at 4 p.m. on Sundays. This afternoon [24 February], Choral Evensong is being broadcast from Peterborough Cathedral; and then, over the next three weeks, from Wakefield Cathedral [3 March 2010], King’s College, Cambridge [10 March 2010], and – on Saint Patrick’s Day [17 March 2010] – from Christ Church Cathedral Dublin.

Choral Evensong was first broadcast on Thursday 7 October 1926 live from Westminster Abbey and has been broadcast weekly on BBC Radio ever since. It has been a major attraction to Anglicanism for many.

Some time ago, I was in London with my elder son, and I thought the most important part of his visit might have been the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum, Big Ben, the Tower of London, the Millennium Bridge, the Globe Theatre or looking down on London from the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. But it was none of these – it was sitting in the choir in Westminster Abbey for Choral Evensong, complete with the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

Quite often those who have been raised in the Anglican tradition can recite whole canticles and psalms from memory.

You will find this useful in pastoral work, especially when it comes to visiting the sick and the dying, and when they ask you to pray with them.

Praying the psalms or canticles with people who have been raised in and formed spiritually by the traditional Anglican use of the psalms and the canticles can be very comforting for them, and very consoling for you.

Which are your favourite canticles?


As fewer and fewer people come to Evening Prayer in our parish churches on Sundays, we are in danger of forgetting that Magnificat or the Song of Mary is one of the great traditional canticles for Evensong throughout the Anglican Communion.

According to the music critic Richard Whitehouse, “the coupling of Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is a procedural ‘given’ in the Evening Service of the Anglican tradition.”

As Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are sung almost daily at Choral Evensong in many Anglican cathedrals and churches, there is a real need for multiple settings of these canticles. Nearly every composer in the 19th and 20th century Anglican choral tradition composed one or more settings of “Mag” and “Nunc.”

At its extreme, this led composers such as the Dublin-born Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) to write a Magnificat in every major key. At Choral Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral with Radio 3 on Saint Patrick’s Day, we shall be singing Stanford’s Canticles in A.

Stanford’s other choral works include two oratorios, a Requiem (1896), a Stabat Mater (1907), and many secular works. His church music still holds a central place among Anglican compositions. Particularly popular examples include his Evening Services in B flat, A, G, and C, his Three Latin Motets (Beati quorum via, Justorum animae, and Coelos ascendit hodie), and his anthem For lo, I raise up.

Even if he is going out of fashion in some places today, Stanford’s influence should not be under-estimated: while he was Professor of Music at Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music, his students included Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983), for his part, published 20 settings of Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis during his career.

But in using the canticles, we can be enriched by drawing on other traditions within the Church, and allowing ourselves to be informed by how they use the canticles and have been enriched spiritually by them.

This afternoon, I want to introduce one modern composer and to reflect on how he has used the canticles and psalms, and through his compositions has brought new spiritual insights to many people who would not otherwise be familiar with our Anglican tradition of the canticles and psalms at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

Introducing Arvo Pärt:

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who has become very popular in his own lifetime. Pärt who was born at Paide in Estonia on 11 September 1935, and his musical education began at the age of seven.

By his early teens, he was writing his own compositions. His early influences included Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartók and Schoenberg. His Credo (1968) was considered a direct provocation to the Soviet thinking, and when his early works were banned under Soviet rule, Pärt started to study 14th-16th century choral music.

Later, he immersed himself in early music, looking at the roots of western music and studying plainsong, Gregorian chant, and polyphony. During this period, his new compositions included Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa.

In 1980, he was forced to leave Estonia with his wife and their two sons. They first lived in Vienna, and there he finished his De Profundis, which he had first sketched in 1977. There too he became an Austrian citizen. They then moved to Berlin, where he still lives.

Pärt’s music came to attention in the West through the efforts of Manfred Eicher, who started to record several of Pärt’s compositions in 1984.

Later works by Pärt include settings for sacred texts, drawing inspiration from Saint John’s Passion, Te Deum, and the Litany. His choral works from this period include his Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

Two years ago, he was honoured as the featured composer of the RTÉ Living Music Festival in Dublin. The Louth Contemporary Music Society commissioned him to write a new choral setting for Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, called The Deer’s Cry, which had its debut in Drogheda and Dundalk in February 2008. He has reached a more popular audience through scores for over 50 movies, including Promised Land and part of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

Arvo Pärt’s style of composition:

Pärt describes his music as “tintinnabuli” – like the ringing of bells. The music is characterised by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triad chords. He says his music is like light going through a prism: the music may have a slightly different meaning for each listener, and so it creates a spectrum of musical experience, similar to the rainbow of light.

It is said “his music fulfils a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.” But there is a warning: with Pärt, you have to be patient. At first, his work sounds very austere, almost as if it has a respect for silence. Yet it is music that lingers in the memory for a long time. It has been summed up as “mystical minimalism,” or “spiritual minimalism.”

Pärt’s Magnificat:

The canticle Magnifcat echoes several Old Testament passages, especially the Song of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel (I Samuel 2: 1-10). In the Orthodox Church, Magnificat is usually sung at Sunday Matins.

The words of the canticle are from the Gospel according to Saint Luke (Luke 1: 46-55), in the account of the Virgin Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. After Mary greets Elizabeth, the child who is to be born, John the Baptist, moves inside Elizabeth’s womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings Magnificat in response.

The child leaping in the womb can be seen as a haunting prefiguring of those who leap with joy in the depths of death when they hear that Christ is coming to visit them from the tomb. Mary’s words in Magnificat are a harrowing of all the hells in our lives. Wickedness and the misuse and abuse of power are being thrown aside by her son. The greatness of the Lord is proclaimed. He descends to the lowly and with his arm lifts them up. This was the promise made to Abraham and the faithful of the past; it is true for us today; and it is true for the future and for all time.

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat is probably his most immediately appealing work. But in this Magnificat, which was first performed in Berlin in 1989, he ignores the classical settings for Magnificat from previous centuries.

Instead, he gives us a Magnificat with a strong spiritual aura that is intensely serene as we listen.

[Listening: Magnificat]

For Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, visit:

Arvo Pärt and Nunc Dimittis

Twelve years after writing his Magnificat, Arvo Pärt wrote his setting for Nunc Dimittis in 2001. This was written to a commission from Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh and was first heard at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2001.

The words of this Canticle are from the Gospel according to Saint Luke (Luke 2: 29-32) and are set by Pärt with an emphasis on the gentle radiance that these words evoke so directly. The part-writing shifts between degrees of dissonance with a sense of growing intensity, and reaches its brief but fervent climax at the words lumen ad revelationem, with a simple but powerful shift to the major.

[Listening: Nunc Dimittis]

Arvo Pärt and the Psalms:

Arvo Pärt’s setting for Psalm 96, Cantate Domino, was composed in 1977 and revised in 1996. This is a setting for Psalm 96 for four-part chorus and organ.

The simple, chant-like melody is heard in a number of harmonisations and registral combinations, with the sparing organ part adding a subtle degree of colour to the vocal writing.

[Listening: Cantate Domino]

Pärt’s De Profundis (Psalm 130), written in 1980, is a very rich and rewarding composition, with its inter-action between the flickering organ, the tenor and bass voices, the quiet bass drum strokes and the chimes of a singular tubular bell.

[Listening: De Profundis]


Arvo Pärt – and other composers such as Stanford and Howells – have brought the rich spiritual values of the canticles and the psalms to a public that is so wide that few of them may even be aware of the place that Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis have in the Anglican traditions of spirituality and liturgy.

[Discuss the opportunities arising from the use of Canticles today.]

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes for a seminar on 24 February 2010 in the Year III B.Th. course, Spirituality for Today.

Saint John’s Gospel (12): John 6: 16-71

“I am the Bread of Life” (John 6: 35)

Patrick Comerford

John 6: 16-71

16 Ὡς δὲ ὀψία ἐγένετο, κατέβησαν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τὴν θάλασσαν, 17 καὶ ἐμβάντες εἰς τὸ πλοῖον ἤρχοντο πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης εἰς Καπερναούμ. καὶ σκοτία ἤδη ἐγεγόνει καὶ οὐκ ἐληλύθει πρὸς αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, 18 ἥ τε θάλασσα ἀνέμου μεγάλου πνέοντος διεγείρετο. 19 ἐληλακότες οὖν ὡς σταδίους εἴκοσι πέντε ἢ τριάκοντα θεωροῦσι τὸν Ἰησοῦν περιπατοῦντα ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης καὶ ἐγγὺς τοῦ πλοίου γινόμενον, καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν. 20 ὁ δὲ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Ἐγώ εἰμι· μὴ φοβεῖσθε. 21 ἤθελον οὖν λαβεῖν αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ πλοῖον, καὶ εὐθέως τὸ πλοῖον ἐγένετο ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς εἰς ἣν ὑπῆγον.

22 Τῇ ἐπαύριον ὁ ὄχλος ὁ ἑστηκὼς πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης εἶδον ὅτι πλοιάριον ἄλλο οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖ εἰ μὴ ἓν ἐκεῖνο εἰς ὃς ἐνέβησαν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ὅτι οὐ συνεισῆλθε τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὸ πλοιάριον, ἀλλὰ μόνοι οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἀπῆλθον· 23 ἄλλα δὲ ἦλθε πλοιάρια ἐκ Τιβεριάδος ἐγγὺς τοῦ τόπου, ὅπου ἔφαγον τὸν ἄρτον εὐχαριστήσαντος τοῦ Κυρίου· 24 ὅτε οὖν εἶδεν ὁ ὄχλος ὅτι Ἰησοῦς οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκεῖ οὐδὲ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, ἐνέβησαν αὐτοὶ εἰς τὰ πλοῖα καὶ ἦλθον εἰς Καπερναοὺμ ζητοῦντες τὸν Ἰησοῦν.

25 καὶ εὑρόντες αὐτὸν πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης εἶπον αὐτῷ· Ραββί, πότε ὧδε γέγονας; 26 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ζητεῖτέ με, οὐχ ὅτι εἴδετε σημεῖα, ἀλλ' ὅτι ἐφάγετε ἐκ τῶν ἄρτων καὶ ἐχορτάσθητε. 27 ἐργάζεσθε μὴ τὴν βρῶσιν τὴν ἀπολλυμένην, ἀλλὰ τὴν βρῶσιν τὴν μένουσαν εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον, ἣν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ὑμῖν δώσει· τοῦτον γὰρ ὁ πατὴρ ἐσφράγισεν ὁ Θεός. 28 εἶπον οὖν πρὸς αὐτόν· Τί ποιῶμεν ἵνα ἐργαζώμεθα τὰ ἔργα τοῦ Θεοῦ; 29 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Τοῦτό ἐστι τὸ ἔργον τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἵνα πιστεύητε εἰς ὃν ἀπέστειλεν ἐκεῖνος. 30 εἶπον οὖν αὐτῷ· Τί οὖν ποιεῖς σὺ σημεῖον ἵνα ἴδωμεν καὶ πιστεύσωμέν σοι; τί ἐργάζῃ; 31 οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν τὸ μάννα ἔφαγον ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, καθώς ἐστι γεγραμμένον· ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς φαγεῖν. 32 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐ Μωϋσῆς δέδωκεν ὑμῖν τὸν ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, ἀλλ' ὁ πατήρ μου δίδωσιν ὑμῖν τὸν ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ τὸν ἀληθινόν. 33 ὁ γὰρ ἄρτος τοῦ Θεοῦ ἐστιν ὁ καταβαίνων ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ζωὴν διδοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ. 34 Εἶπον οὖν πρὸς αὐτόν· Κύριε, πάντοτε δὸς ἡμῖν τὸν ἄρτον τοῦτον.

35 εἶπε δὲ αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς· ὁ ἐρχόμενος πρός με οὐ μὴ πεινάσῃ, καὶ ὁ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ οὐ μὴ διψήσει πώποτε. 36 ἀλλ' εἶπον ὑμῖν ὅτι καὶ ἑωράκατέ με καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε. 37 Πᾶν ὃ δίδωσί μοι ὁ πατὴρ, πρὸς ἐμὲ ἥξει, καὶ τὸν ἐρχόμενον πρὸς με οὐ μὴ ἐκβάλω ἔξω· 38 ὅτι καταβέβηκα ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ οὐχ ἵνα ποιῶ τὸ θέλημα τὸ ἐμὸν, ἀλλὰ τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πέμψαντός με. 39 τοῦτο δέ ἐστι τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πέμψαντός με πατρός, ἵνα πᾶν ὃ δέδωκέ μοι μὴ ἀπολέσω ἐξ αὐτοῦ, ἀλλὰ ἀναστήσω αὐτὸ ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ. 40 τοῦτο δὲ ἐστι τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πέμψαντός με, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ θεωρῶν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον, καὶ ἀναστήσω αὐτὸν ἐγὼ τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ.

41 Ἐγόγγυζον οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι περὶ αὐτοῦ ὅτι εἶπεν, ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος ὁ καταβὰς ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, 42 καὶ ἔλεγον· Οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς ὁ υἱὸς Ἰωσήφ, οὗ ἡμεῖς οἴδαμεν τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὴν μητέρα; πῶς οὖν λέγει οὗτος ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβέβηκα; 43 ἀπεκρίθη οὖν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Μὴ γογγύζετε μετ' ἀλλήλων. 44 οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐλθεῖν πρός με, ἐὰν μὴ ὁ πατὴρ ὁ πέμψας με ἑλκύσῃ αὐτόν, καὶ ἐγὼ ἀναστήσω αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ. 45 ἔστι γεγραμμένον ἐν τοῖς προφήταις· καὶ ἔσονται πάντες διδακτοὶ Θεοῦ. πᾶς ὁ ἀκούων παρὰ τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ μαθὼν ἔρχεται πρός με. 46 οὐχ ὅτι τὸν πατέρα τις ἑώρακεν, εἰ μὴ ὁ ὢν παρὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ, οὗτος ἑώρακε τὸν πατέρα. 47 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὁ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 48 ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς. 49 οἱ πατέρες ὑμῶν ἔφαγον τὸ μάννα ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ ἀπέθανον· 50 οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἄρτος ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβαίνων, ἵνα τις ἐξ αὐτοῦ φάγῃ καὶ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ. 51 ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος ὁ ζῶν ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς· ἐάν τις φάγῃ ἐκ τούτου τοῦ ἄρτου, ζήσεται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. καὶ ὁ ἄρτος δὲ ὃν ἐγὼ δώσω, ἡ σάρξ μού ἐστιν, ἣν ἐγὼ δώσω ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ κόσμου ζωῆς.

52 Ἐμάχοντο οὖν πρὸς ἀλλήλους οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι λέγοντες· Πῶς δύναται οὗτος ἡμῖν δοῦναι τὴν σάρκα φαγεῖν; 53 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ φάγητε τὴν σάρκα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ πίητε αὐτοῦ τὸ αἷμα, οὐκ ἔχετε ζωὴν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς. 54 ὁ τρώγων μου τὴν σάρκα καὶ πίνων μου τὸ αἷμα ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον, καὶ ἐγὼ ἀναστήσω αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ. 55 ἡ γὰρ σάρξ μου ἀληθῶς ἐστι βρῶσις, καὶ τὸ αἷμά μου ἀληθῶς ἐστι πόσις. 56 ὁ τρώγων μου τὴν σάρκα καὶ πίνων μου τὸ αἷμα ἐν ἐμοὶ μένει, κἀγὼ ἐν αὐτῷ. 57 καθὼς ἀπέστειλέ με ὁ ζῶν πατὴρ κἀγὼ ζῶ διὰ τὸν πατέρα, καὶ ὁ τρώγων με κἀκεῖνος ζήσεται δι' ἐμέ. 58 οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἄρτος ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, οὐ καθὼς ἔφαγον οἱ πατέρες ὑμῶν καὶ ἀπέθανον· ὁ τρώγων μου τοῦτον τὸν ἄρτον ζήσεται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. 59 Ταῦτα εἶπεν ἐν συναγωγῇ διδάσκων ἐν Καπερναούμ.

60 Πολλοὶ οὖν ἀκούσαντες ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ εἶπον· Σκληρός ἐστιν ὁ λόγος· τίς δύναται αὐτοῦ ἀκούειν; 61 εἰδὼς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν ἑαυτῷ ὅτι γογγύζουσι περὶ τούτου οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Τοῦτο ὑμᾶς σκανδαλίζει; 62 ἐὰν οὖν θεωρῆτε τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἀναβαίνοντα ὅπου ἦν τὸ πρότερον; 63 τὸ Πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ ζῳοποιοῦν, ἡ σὰρξ οὐκ ὠφελεῖ οὐδέν· τὰ ῥήματα ἃ ἐγὼ λαλῶ ὑμῖν, πνεῦμά ἐστι καὶ ζωή ἐστιν. 64 ἀλλ' εἰσὶν ἐξ ὑμῶν τινες οἳ οὐ πιστεύουσιν. ᾔδει γὰρ ἐξ ἀρχῆς ὁ Ἰησοῦς τίνες εἰσὶν οἱ μὴ πιστεύοντες καὶ τίς ἐστιν ὁ παραδώσων αὐτόν. 65 καὶ ἔλεγε· Διὰ τοῦτο εἴρηκα ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐλθεῖν πρός με, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ δεδομένον αὐτῷ ἐκ τοῦ πατρός μου.

66 Ἐκ τούτου πολλοὶ ἀπῆλθον ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω καὶ οὐκέτι μετ' αὐτοῦ περιεπάτουν. 67 εἶπεν οὖν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοῖς δώδεκα· Μὴ καὶ ὑμεῖς θέλετε ὑπάγειν; 68 ἀπεκρίθη οὖν αὐτῷ Σίμων Πέτρος· Κύριε, πρὸς τίνα ἀπελευσόμεθα; ῥήματα ζωῆς αἰωνίου ἔχεις· 69 καὶ ἡμεῖς πεπιστεύκαμεν καὶ ἐγνώκαμεν ὅτι σὺ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος. 70 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Οὐκ ἐγὼ ὑμᾶς τοὺς δώδεκα ἐξελεξάμην; καὶ ἐξ ὑμῶν εἷς διάβολός ἐστιν. 71 ἔλεγε δὲ τὸν Ἰούδαν Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτην· οὗτος γὰρ ἔμελλεν αὐτόν παραδιδόναι, εἷς ὢν ἐκ τῶν δώδεκα.

John 6: 16-71

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26 Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 28 Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29 Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30 So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34 They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42 They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ 43 Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ 53 So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ 70 Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ 71 He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.


This is a long section in this chapter, but it seems natural to take it as one passage as the teaching on “the bread that came down from heaven” continues naturally from our consideration two weeks ago of the feeding of the multitude in the first section of this chapter (see: Saint John’s Gospel (11): John 6: 1-15).

Here John records a long conversation with the people Christ has fed, after they have eaten and he has given thanks. We can divide this section into the following four parts:

1, verses 16-24 (Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee);

2, verses 25-34 (the request for a sign);

3, verses 35-58 (the discourse on the Bread of Life), which sub-divides into two themes: the Sapiential themes (verses 35-50), and the Sacramental theme (verses 51-58);

4, verses 59-71 (the reaction to the words of Christ).

Part 1, verses 16-24 (Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee):

As in the Gospels according to Saint Matthew and Saint Mark, the disciples are well out at sea in the midst of a storm when Christ comes to them across the water. However, the point of the story for Saint John is not the calming of the sea, but the majestic statement: “Do not be afraid, Ἐγώ εἰμι I AM” (verse 20).

The impact of the “I AM” statement is missed in the NRSV, where it is translated with the more insipid “It is I.” But this is not one of the seven great “I AM” sayings in this Gospel. We encounter the first of these later in verse 35.

Some scholars also see the theme of the crossing of the Red Sea in Christ’s walking on the water.

Verse 19:

The disciples see. But do they believe? See what Simon Peter says on their behalf in verse 68.

Part 2, verses 25-34 (the request for a sign):

Verse 25:

The crowd then follows Christ to Capernaum and asks him: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (NRSV), or, as other versions might put it: “How did you get here?”

Verse 26:

Once again, we have the characteristic Johannine mode of address for Christ: Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν (Amen, Amen). This is translated “Amen, amen,” in the RSV, but in the NRSV as:” Very truly.” Yet, we noted two weeks ago the significance of the “Amen, amen,” sayings in the Fourth Gospel.

In a characteristic Johannine play on words, Christ will tell them that he came here from heaven (see verses 41-42).

Verses 27-34:

But at this stage, we should notice how the conversation that unfolds parallels the earlier conversation with the Samaritan woman in Chapter 4:

● Verse 27 parallels John 4: 13;

● Verses 30-31 parallel John 4: 12;

● Verse 33 parallels John 4: 14.

● Verse 34 parallels John 4: 15.

As always, the aspirations of the crowd are on the material level only. They see the miraculous level of the sign, but they fail to grasp its meaning. Once again in this Gospel, we have a contrast between seeing and believing.

When Christ tries to raise them above this materialistic outlook, he is met by their persistent inability to understand.

Verse 31:

They then introduce the theme of the Passover and the feeding in the wilderness with the Manna. The feast of the Passover was near (verse 6), but rabbinic literature also speaks of the expected messiah repeating the miracle of the manna.

Verses 32-33:

However, these Galileans do not recognise that the Messianic Manna is the word of God, divine teaching and wisdom (see Deuteronomy 8: 3; Proverbs 9: 2-5). It is not the bread of the desert that was given by Moses but Christ who is the bread now given by the Father.

“I am the Bread of Life” (John 6: 35) ... an image from Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral, Orlando (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Part 3, verses 35-58 (the discourse on the Bread of Life):

In response to their request for bread, Christ begins his great discourse on the Bread of Life. This discourse is in two parts: (a) verses 35-50, what Raymond Brown describes as “the Sapiential theme,” in which the nourishing heavenly bread is presented as the revelation or teaching of Christ; (b) verses 51-58, what Raymond Brown calls “the Sacramental theme,” in which the nourishing heavenly bread is the Eucharist.

These two themes are complementary, and we see here the basic substance of our liturgy for the past 2,000 years: the proclaimed Word and the Word in the Sacrament. Perhaps this accounts for John’s omission of an institution narrative in the Fourth Gospel.

Part 3a: the Sapiential themes (verses 35-50):

These verses could be described as Wisdom material. However, unlike the Wisdom writings in the Old Testament, Christ’s teaching nourishes forever.

Verse 35:

I AM the bread of life (John 6: 35), the first of the seven great I AM sayings in Saint John’s Gospel

This is the first of the seven I AM (Ἐγώ εἰμι) sayings in Saint John’s Gospel, and is repeated in verse 48. These seven I AM sayings are traditionally listed as:

1, I am the Bread of Life (John 6: 35, 48);
2, I am the Light of the World (John 8: 12);
3, I am the gate (or the door) (John 10: 7);
4, I am the Good Shepherd (John 10: 11 and 14);
5, I am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11: 25);
6, I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14: 6);
7, I am the true vine (John 15: 1, 5).

These I AM sayings are statements that give us a form of the divine name as revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai before to the first Passover (see Exodus 3: 14).

Jesus, in fact, says “I am” (Ἐγώ εἰμι) 45 times in this Gospel, including those places where other characters quote Christ’s words. Of these, 24 are emphatic, explicitly including the pronoun “I" (Ἐγώ), which would not be necessary in grammatically in Greek.

These emphatic references can also be sub-divided into “Absolute” or “Predicate” statements.

Verse 41:

In verse 41, the people start to murmur, just as the people murmured about the manna in the wilderness (see Exodus 16: 2, 8).

Verses 43:

Jesus reproves them and tells them to stop murmuring.

Verse 47:

Note yet another “Amen, amen” saying, which is so characteristic of Saint John’s Gospel.

Verse 48:

This is a repetition, or echo, or reminder of the first of the seven I AM (Ἐγώ εἰμι) sayings in verse 35.

Verses 49:

They are proud like their ancestors, but do not know his Father.

Part 3b: the Sacramental theme (verses 51-58):

John 6: 51-58: the Sacramental theme in the Discourse on the Bread of Life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

It could be argued that the sublime sacramental theology in this part of the discourse would not have been understood by a Galilean audience at that time. It has also been argued that this part of the discourse draws on Eucharistic material from the Last Supper to to bring out the deeper sacramental meaning of the heavenly bread, which can only be grasped in the light of the institution of the Eucharist.

In a deeper sense, the life-giving and living bread is Christ’s own flesh.

Verse 51:

John gives us the words: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This appears to be a variant of the words of the institution in the Eucharist (see Luke 22: 19; I Corinthians 11: 26).

For the Apostle Paul, the Eucharist proclaims the death of the Lord until he comes again. But for John, the emphasis is on the Word that has become flesh and that gives up his flesh and blood as the food of life.

There is profound sacramental theology here. If baptism gives us that life which the Father shares with the Son, then the Eucharist is the food nourishing it.

Part 4, verses 59-71 (the reaction to the words of Christ):

Verse 59:

Synagogue ruins in Capernaum (Photograph: David Shankbone)

We are told that all this has been taking place in the synagogue in Capernaum. The synagogue in Capernaum is a well-known location in the Synoptic Gospels.

Saint Matthew’s Gospel says Capernaum is the home of Jesus (Matthew 4: 13). In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Saint Luke also says it is the home of the Apostles Peter, Andrew, James and John, as well as the tax collector Matthew. Luke also tells us that Jesus also taught in the synagogue in Capernaum on Saturdays (Luke 4: 31-44). In Capernaum also, he healed a man who had the spirit of an unclean devil and healed a fever in Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Matthew tells us that in Capernaum the centurion asked Christ to heal his servant (Matthew 8: 5-13).

The ruins of what may have been a synagogue of that period has been found beneath the remains of a later synagogue, and is one of the oldest synagogues in the world. The ancient synagogue still has two inscriptions, one in Greek, the other in Aramaic, that thank the benefactors who helped to build it.

Was a synagogue in the Ephesus area also the venue for the debates over the true bread from heaven between the “Jews” and the Johannine Christians?

Verse 60:

Christ’s teachings are greeted with disbelief, even by many of his disciples, who find his words hard to accept.

Verse 61 ff:

Once again, Christ knows that they are murmuring. In reply, does Christ make it any easier for them?

Hardly. John tells us that as result of this, many of the disciples returned to their old ways and no longer followed him (verse 66).

The 12 remain, but even they are challenged to answer for themselves and to say why they have not walked away too.

Once again, we have another reference to the Last Supper, when Judas isolates himself from the other 12.


This section of the Fourth Gospel should also allow us to draw some comparisons with the RCL Gospel reading for last Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent (Luke 4: 1-13):

● Christ crosses the Jordan and is led into the wilderness (Luke 4: 1), just as he crosses the Sea of Galilee;

● The one who is tempted to turn stone into bread (Luke 4: 3) is the Bread of Life (John 6: 35);

● He is tempted to display his authority and splendour in an inappropriate way (Luke 4: 6), just as in this chapter he is told to produce a miraculous sign (John 6: 30);

● He is tempted to throw himself down (Luke 4: 9); he has come down from heaven (John 6: 33, 38).

● The devil asks him if he is the Son of God (Luke 4: 9); God is his Father, and he does his Father’s will (John 6: 39-40).

Next: John 7: Jesus and the Feast of the Tabernacles

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with B.Th. and M.Th. students on 24 February 2010.