Living Bread Come Down from Heaven
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine August 5, 2018
Last Sunday, we interrupted our sequential reading of Mark’s Gospel to hear St. John’s version of the only miracle recounted by all four Evangelists: Jesus feeding the multitudes with the loaves and fishes. Now, for the next four Sundays, we will reflect on the deeper spiritual significance of this event, meeting Jesus himself as the Living Bread come down from heaven. These texts from Chapter 6 of John's Gospel can seem at first glance quite repetitive, as Jesus provides us with several variations on the one theme. I still vividly remember the summer of my second year as a priest, 25 years ago, when I had to preach five Sundays in a row on what felt like the same readings!!
I do believe, though, that if we open ourselves up to Jesus speaking to us through his Word, there is always something new – a deeper insight, an unexpected twist, a new light that can be shed on some aspect of our lives. If Jesus keeps coming back to this mystery of the gift of his Body and Blood as the Bread of Life, building on what has come before, this must indicate the importance of what he is trying to tell us.
In some ways, I began my reflection on this text as last Saturday evening, I attended the 7 PM Mass in the village of Cande-sur-Beuvron in the Loire Valley of France. It was the last evening of my holiday; there were maybe 20-25 people in church, and I am pretty sure that apart from the priest, I was the youngest person in the church! But I was powerfully moved by the faith of those who had gathered in that little church, their beautiful singing voices, and by the homily given by the young French priest. If you think back to last Sunday’s Gospel, you will probably remember that Jesus himself feeds the multitude from the five barley loaves and two fishes brought forward by a small boy. Only after the crowds are fed do the disciples get involved, gathering up the fragments so that “nothing is lost.” The priest made three simple points in his homily, each of which spoke to me directly and powerfully.
First, don’t be afraid to bring what you have to God. Don’t be discouraged by the perception that your gifts seem small, insignificant, or insufficient to the task. Bring God whatever you have, and let God take care of the results.
Second, trust that when you do this, God can and will do amazing things. The harvest belongs to God, and God is not a God of scarcity, but a God of abundance. Jesus invites you to help gather in that harvest and share it generously, so that none of his graces may be lost.
Finally, especially in this summer vacation time, when life slows down a bit, cultivate gratitude. Give thanks to God for everything – for what you can offer, however small it seems; for the ways in which God makes his presence and care known to you; and for God’s strength and sufficiency in the midst of your weakness and littleness.
While the other Gospel authors often focus on the details of what Jesus does, St. John, writing a little bit later (as most scholars suggest) seems more interested in who Jesus IS. Thus, we have all of these “I AM” statements, where Jesus identifies himself as “The Light of the World”, “The Good Shepherd”, “The Way, the Truth and the Life”, the “True Vine”, and so on. Today, Jesus presents himself as “The Bread of Life”, the One who satisfies our deeper hungers. We meet a Jesus at once fully aware of His divine origins, but also one who is fully human, in touch with the needs of His people for light, for the guidance of a good shepherd, for healing and love and acceptance, for food and drink. But we also meet a Jesus whose interventions in the physical order - to feed, to heal, to restore sight, even to raise the dead to life - always point to a deeper inner transformation.
Most of us can relate to this. We get so wrapped up in our own immediate temporal needs and desires, that we rarely take the time to go deeper: to confront our inner struggles and hungers, the desires of the human heart that no amount of food or drink, material possessions, fame or success, can fill. Like the Israelites in the Exodus reading, we are quicker to complain about what we don’t have, than to give thanks for God’s blessings in our life. Like the crowd in the Gospel, we ask for more signs. Can’t you just imagine Jesus thinking – I just fed 5,000 people with one kid’s lunch – what other sign do they want to see!?
Indeed, Jesus takes our concrete human needs seriously, and he expects us to do the same. He responds to the crowd’s physical hunger by providing them with real food. I have often thought that what goes on in our food bank downstairs on Tuesdays is deeply connected to what goes on upstairs at our weekend Masses: Jesus inviting us to share in the task of feeding the hungry. So Jesus knows our needs, takes them seriously, and responds to them. As the people of Israel were fed with manna in the desert in their need, so too Jesus begins by feeding their physical hunger. But now they are back, looking for him. Presumably, they have eaten their fill. What are they looking for now?
Jesus suggests that they are looking for signs, for a “repeat performance” if you will. But he responds by inviting them to go deeper. To recognize that there are hungers in the human heart that cannot be satisfied by what this material world has to offer. Physical health and material comforts may help us enjoy life, but they cannot be the foundation upon which we build. We need something more solid, more lasting. In other words, we need not just bread, but Jesus himself: the Living Bread come down from heaven.
Listen to his words: "I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. I am the living bread come down from heaven: whoever eats of this bread will live forever." Jesus invites the crowds to see him not as a convenient source of bread, a miracle-maker, but as One who comes to give his very Self to us. He desires to be our source of life and nourishment - here and now in this world, but also opening up to eternity with God. Jesus invites us not just to believe things about Him, but to truly believe in Him. He calls us into a living and breathing relationship, rooted in trust, love and intimate knowledge, one that can sustain us each day, whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
We live and are marked by a binge-ing culture. If some is good, then more is better: whether it’s food, or gadgets, or social media, or entertainment. Recently the Oxford English Dictionary recognized as their “new word of the year”, “Binge-watch”. Most of you know that this means watching an entire television series at one sitting, on DVD or live-streamed on Netflix!
It can be tempting to treat religion or faith in the same way. To ignore our faith, our relationship with Christ most of the time, but then to call on him only in a crisis, or when it’s time for a baptism or confirmation or wedding or funeral. Do we make room for Jesus as part of our everyday life? An interesting detail left out of today’s first reading is that the people were strictly instructed to gather up only as much manna as their family could eat in one day, and that if they tried to store it, it would spoil and decay. Perhaps it’s what Jesus was alluding to when he instructed his disciples to pray “give us this day our daily bread”: no more, no less, trusting that if God was faithful yesterday, he will continue to be so today and tomorrow.
We have been taught to be self-reliant, to think we can do it on our own. But we are mistaken. We need God. We have perhaps never needed Him more. We need God's presence in Jesus not just on special occasions, but as part of our everyday life and existence, as much as we need food and drink and oxygen and sleep. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity provide us with a wonderful example. Every morning, the sisters spend an hour in silent prayer in the chapel, and receive his sacramental presence in the Eucharist. This presence sustains them and enables them to recognize Jesus in their ministry to the neighbour in need of love and attention. Without this source of life and strength, this personal connection to the Bread of Life, the sisters could not accomplish their mission.
In this summer season, when life slows down just a little, maybe we too can find a little time each day to pray, to return to the Source: to Jesus who gives himself to us, in Word and Sacrament, and in our neighbour. It doesn’t have to be much: reflecting for a few minutes on the daily readings, praying a psalm or a decade of the rosary, taking some time at the end of the day to see how the Lord has been present in my life, and to reflect on how I have responded to Him.
"We are what we eat." In coming forward to receive the Body of Christ, we pledge to become that which we receive. To become Eucharist, to become living bread for others as Jesus has been for us, is to live in love as Christ has loved us. It is to become like Jesus in the Eucharist, bread for the world: taken and blessed, broken and shared. So as we receive Jesus, the Bread of Life, let us renew our commitment to live as members of His Body, given for the life of the world. Amen!!