|Good, but not the Bread of Heaven|
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
We continue this week with the second installment of the five-week reading of John 6. If you remember, last week we heard the back-story with the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fish. It was prefaced by the story of a similar miracle worked at the words of the prophet Elisha, but the difference between the two was the ‘something new’ that Christ was working and we found it in that key phrase of St. John: The Jewish feast of Passover was near. We saw how the feast sets the stage for what is to follow, namely a call to partake of a special food, embark on a journey, witness the shedding of blood, and make a decision that has life and death consequences. And so we pick up today in the place where Louisianans almost always start: food.
Our body needs food. When we don’t get it or don’t get enough of it, our body lets us know. When I was in college and had just come back to the Church I was zealous in my desire to do great things for the Lord and so when Lent came around I resolved to embark upon an intense fast from food. One day I was sitting in my Latin class working on an exam and my stomach began the ‘hungry gurgle’ and proceed to make this loud, awkward sound for a solid minute. Not exaggerating. My classmates looked at me with the obvious question in their eyes “What is going on with this guy?” I was hungry and my stomach let me, and everyone around me, know it.
The key, I said, to the whole story is the event of Passover. In our first reading we get a glimpse of life after the Passover. The Israelites ate the lamb and special foods as prescribed by the Lord and they survived just as they had been promised. And now they set out from Egypt, passed through the Red Sea and have begun to wander in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. But the problem is the hungry gurgle. Their stomachs begin to rumble and then their mouths begin to grumble to one another. Pretty soon the whole people is ready to return to slavery simply in order to have their bellies full once more!
The Lord hears the cry of His people, as He always does, and commits Himself to providing for them bread in the morning and flesh in the evening. Evening comes that first day and upon the camp descends a flock of quail enough to feed everyone. This is miraculous in itself because there were over 600,000 men, not counting women and children in this great exodus of the Israelites. That’s A LOT of quail! And then in the morning they wake up and walk outside of their tents and ask ‘Manna?’ The word ‘Manna’ literally means ‘what is it’ and so this stuff scattered far and wide was not something they were familiar with at all, even having travelled the desert for a while. Moses comes to them to explain that it is the Bread of Heaven, as promised by God Himself.
This Bread of Heaven was also miraculous. It was such that those who could only gather a little and those who gathered a lot were both perfectly supplied, none were left wanting. It was required that the Manna be gathered only enough for that day. In some cases the people tried to increase the amount gathered to last them two days so they could take a break and not work; the manna spoiled overnight every time except on one specific night: that of Sabbath. Only on Friday were they Israelites able to gather a double portion and have it keep for the next day without souring and this was at the Lord’s command so that they could keep holy the Sabbath and not be consumed with work. What’s more, this miraculous bread appeared every day for 40 years while the people were on the journey to the Promised Land and it stopped on the exact day that they cross over into it and not a soul has seen the Manna fall since that day. The Bread of Heaven nourished them all along the journey and was among the most powerful reminders of the power and providence of God for His people.
This is the back-story this week for the words of Jesus. Keep in mind the 5000 had just been fed and Jesus went off with the disciples to another place. In the passage we just heard the crowd has tracked Him down and His response gets us into the really meat of His teaching on the Eucharist. The people gather around Him and He tells that they are seeking Him not because they saw signs – not because they had encountered God or experienced His power – but because their stomachs were full and it’s time to eat once more. He points out that they were driven by a less noble reason, much like their ancient ancestors who were tempted to return to slavery just to get food once more. Recognizing that they have come with empty stomachs He tells them to strive for the food that endures to eternal life. Jesus obviously knows because nobody is going to tell you to strive for something and shrug their shoulders when you ask them about where to find it. Jesus is drawing them into the dialogue to pull from them the desire to attain this food that endures to eternal life. And so they ask. They recall how their ancestors ate Manna in the desert and boldly look at Jesus and question Him: “What can you do?”
“It was not Moses who gave you the bread of Heaven; my Father gives you the true bread of Heaven. The bread of God is that which comes down from Heaven and gives life to the whole world.”
With this Jesus powerfully drives home the point that it was not Moses, but His Father who provided the bread. But even more powerfully He states that it was not the TRUE bread of Heaven. It was simply a foreshadowing, a symbol of the reality that the Father would eventually send not just to feed ONE nation but to feed ALL the nations. And what is this true bread of Heaven? What is this ultimate reality that the Father sent to give life to the whole world? Where can one partake of this true Bread?
“I AM the Bread of Life.”
‘Jesus Himself is the Bread of Life? How can this be? How are we to eat of Him and receive eternal life?’ the Jews immediately questioned in their hearts. We already know the teaching that is come and yet with what joy we pause to contemplate the wonder of such a claim!
The readings both challenge us this weekend with one basic question: why are we here? Why do we come to Mass? Do we come to come to encounter the Living God once more or is it that we get some spiritual feeling out it? Maybe we just like the music or the sermon or the community? What draws us here?
Today is the feast of St. Peter Julian Eymard, a priest of the 1800’s who had a fiery love for the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. I wanted to end here with a quote from the last sermon he ever preached:
We believe in the love of God for us. To believe in love is everything. It is not enough to believe in the truth. We must believe in love, and love is Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. That is the faith that makes Our Lord loved. Ask for this pure and simple faith in the Eucharist. Men will teach you; but only Jesus will give you the grace to believe in Him. Come and receive Communion in order to have the strength of faith, not merely the satisfaction, the feeling of faith. You have the Eucharist, what more do you want?