Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Bread of Life

Gathering the Manna
Readings for Sunday, August 5/ 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Psalm 78:3-4, 23-25, 54
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
John 6:24-35

Last weekend we heard two accounts of miracles involving the multiplication of food, a clear sign that God will always provide for His people, though often in unexpected ways. And, as so often happens, the Lord takes the miracle of the feeding of five thousand and uses it as a stepping stone of sorts to move to something even deeper and more mysterious. After the miracle the people follow after the Lord because they were nourished by Him and want to receive from His hands yet more food. He points this out Himself when He tells them, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” But He doesn’t stop there. He continues on, going that next step as He now challenges His hearers, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

The tactic the Lord uses of taking something familiar and using it to connect to something even deeper is something that happens often in His teachings, but it is also something that happens in the scriptures themselves with what is called typology. Countless examples can be taken of Old Testament stories being used to understand New Testament realities. The Old Testament symbol of the Ark that Noah built and used as a means of safety in the midst of a turbulent storm becomes in the New Testament a symbol of the Church that welcomes all people to take shelter in the midst of a turbulent world. The Old Testament story of the Israelites walking across the Red Sea to be saved from their Egyptian attackers comes up in the New Testament symbol of being saved from evil by passing through the waters of Baptism. Another one, which is brought into the spotlight today is the gift of the Manna and Quail in the desert.

The story of the Manna is, to me, one of the most fascinating in the whole of the Bible. The people of Israel had been moved by the Lord from their slavery in Egypt to pursue the Promised Land. But because of the hardness of the peoples’ hearts, they were detoured and spent forty years wandering in the desert. Knowing that they would not be able to survive, the Lord supplied food for them every day: Manna and quail. Some think that Manna was just a naturally occurring phenomenon in the desert, but that is foolishness. The Israelites were so confused at it that when they first saw it they quickly asked, “What is it?” and had to have it explained by Moses. Furthermore, this miraculous Manna was given only six days of the week. They were to gather twice as much on the day before the Sabbath, so as not to have to work.  And so every day for forty years, God provided for the people miraculous bread in the morning and the flesh of birds in the evening. And the most interesting part: when the Israelites crossed over the Jordan River into the Promised Land told of by God, the Manna and quail instantly ceased coming. They had arrived in their destined home, where the Lord would no longer have to provide miraculously because He would be there with them to provide in normal manner once again.

The Jewish people remembered this story clearly and held it in high regard as one of the most important stories because it was a sign of God’s care for them in the midst of trials. Being a pious Jew Himself, Jesus knew this very well and used it as the background for a new journey. When the Lord tells the people to work for the food that endures for eternal life, He shifts the view of an earthly Promised Land to a Heavenly One.

Receiving the True Bread from Heaven
The reality is that as the new Chosen People, we are no longer looking for a special place on Earth, but rather are looking forward to getting to Heaven. In the Old Testament, when the Israelites passed through the water, there was no going back and they had simply to rely on the providence of God to give bread and flesh that would sustain them to the earthly Promised Land. In the new journey before us, the reality is the same. Once we were baptized and all stain of sin removed from us, there is no turning back; we must simply rely on God’s providence for the food that will sustain us until the day we reach our Heavenly Promised Land. And what is that food if not the Eucharist?

Before, they had two separate signs – bread and flesh. Now, those two signs are unified in the Eucharist as we eat what appears to be bread but which is in reality the flesh of God. It was not simply as a figure of speech that Jesus tells His hearers that He is the Bread of Life. It is quite true. He is the Bread of Life, and Bread of Life is Him! This is the reason, as we will hear in the coming weeks, that Christ is so strong in His insistence that everyone partake of His Flesh and Blood, because if He is Life and we fail to receive Him, we have no life in us but belong wholly to death.

One thing, though, must be said. Just because we are commanded by the Lord to partake of His Flesh and Blood, does not mean that we should do so no matter what. Quite the contrary; if God has blessed us with this gift of Himself, we ought to approach it in a serious manner. Here I would like to conclude with four points for reflection:

1-     We should examine ourselves before receiving this Heavenly food. So we must ask ourselves: is there anything keeping me from Communion with Christ? Are there grave sins that need to be forgiven in the sacrament of confession before I can receive Communion worthy once more?
2-     We should spend time in thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion. Rather than running off to take care of the next task on our list, we ought to spend a moment and let Christ fill us with His life and give thanks for that gift.
3-     We should be aware that it is truly Christ that we are receiving and strive each time we receive Holy Communion to do so in a reverent manner rather than letting it become routine
4-     We are all pilgrims on the journey to the Heavenly Promised Land, but the reality is that while we are strengthened with the Eucharist, many around us are spiritually starving. Who in our own lives needs to hear about or be reminded of the Bread of Life? And are we willing to invite them to come to the One who gives us the True Bread from Heaven, that Bread which gives us life both on Earth and in Heaven?