Dominica XVIII per Annum B
5 August 2018
Last week was our first week of a five-week tour through the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, known as the Bread of Life discourse. This chapter is a prime location of Jesus’ teaching and our faith in the Holy Eucharist, that ordinary bread and wine become his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The first reading today from Exodus 16 narrates God’s providing of a bread-like substance, called manna, in miraculous fashion for 40 years in the desert, which foreshadows Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness and foreshadows his providing the true bread from heaven. Last weekend the gospel selection told us of the feeding of the five thousand with loaves and fish. While this was a miraculous multiplication of food we should note that, although miraculous, the bread multiplied was still ordinary bread; the “flesh” still ordinary fish. After feeding the five thousand Jesus goes off and, in a gospel selection we do not hear in this five-week tour, he miraculously walks across the water. Today’s Gospel selection picks up the next day after these two miracles. The Jewish crowds notice Jesus’ absence. They go seeking him out and they make their way across the sea to find him. The passage makes clear why they are seeking him: It’s time to eat again! They had eaten their fill but now it is the next day and their bellies are likely empty again. Jesus acknowledges that the crowds are seeking him for a free meal: “…you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
What is Jesus doing here for the crowds? He wants to redirect or elevate their desire and attention to something more than regular, natural, ordinary bread. The statement is clear: It’s as if Jesus is saying, “you have gone to so much effort for ordinary food. Put far more effort into the food that lasts.” Likewise for us, Jesus wants to elevate our thinking and our desire for a food that endures to eternal life. Why do the crowds need to hear Jesus tell them to elevate their thinking? Why do we need to hear the same? Because they and we so quickly and easily put aside spiritual thinking and spiritual vision. This is what is hidden in Jesus’ words: “you are looking for me NOT because you saw signs.” St. John’s use of the word “sign” refers to miraculous revelations of Jesus’ power and mission that, when accepted, are vehicles that promote coming to faith in him. The crowds witnessed the miracles, but did they see the sign? Did they – do we – see with spiritual vision so that signs of Jesus are not just mighty deeds to impress, but gifts to draw us to faith in Jesus as the Son of God? The crowds don’t see. Jesus tells them so: You are coming after me not because you saw signs but because your bellies were filled. And thus, he tells them to elevate their minds and to seek what lasts. His message is the same to us. Jesus wants us to see beyond the ordinary and to come to deeper faith in him as our God. This is his message too about what appears as ordinary bread, of which we will hear more in the coming weeks. He doesn’t want us to stop with bread that fills the stomach but then perishes. He redirects our desire and our focus to “the bread of God… which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” This is the bread that he will give.
Consider how startling is the human tendency to lower our thinking and our vision. Did you notice how the first reading about God giving the manna started? Exodus 16 tells us that out in the desert the “whole Israelite community grumbled.” They were complaining. They actually defy God by indicating that they would prefer to go back to Egypt where they had been in slavery! Why go back? Because at least there they knew where their next meal was coming from! They would prefer to return to slavery if they could at least know their bellies would be filled. This complaining is all the more startling when you consider that just the chapter before God had miraculously saved them from Pharaoh’s approaching army by parting the sea to give them safe passage. Yet they have so soon lowered their thinking and their vision! “Following God is too hard. Let’s go back to being slaves. In Egypt we knew where our food was.” Friends, we are not that different in how quickly we settle for food that perishes, whatever we can provide and control for ourselves, whatever we think will keep our bellies full, whether that is literal food, or power, or money, or attention, or social media likes, or drugs, or sex – the list goes on!
Like the Israelite community, what deserts of life cause us to lower our thinking and to focus mostly on filling ourselves with the things that perish? Maybe “the desert” is that common tendency to trust in myself. It’s much easier and more predictable than being vulnerable to God or to someone else. That would require trust. Maybe it’s that tendency to keep myself so busy that I barely notice my deeper and spiritual needs. That emptiness is there and it is nagging at me. But if I just keep going it gets filled, right? Maybe the desert is a habit of serious sin and I feel powerless to stop it. It’s easier to just live in the slavery than to open it, to reveal it, to raise it to God. Maybe the desert is trouble in marriage or a painful loss and it’s like there is just no place to go. Could the desert that lowers your thinking and obscures your spiritual vision be some personal defect or some cross or suffering? It’s not a sin, but gosh it’s heavy and I can’t see what Jesus might do with this. Or maybe the desert is a generalized dryness in faith, or going through the motions as a Catholic. And I know I need more.
Do you see why we too need to hear Jesus tell us today to redirect and to elevate our thinking so that we receive from him the food that he will give, the true bread from heaven? Like the Israelites, our lowered vision convinces us that even a place of slavery is better because in a perverse sense it is more predictable and we seem to have some element of control. We are inclined to settle for the kingdom of darkness where everything perishes. Jesus wants to elevate our hope to his kingdom and the food that endures to eternal life!
In the weeks ahead we will hear the undeniable and clear teaching that Jesus gives his whole self, his flesh and blood, as food that endures. Jesus turns ordinary bread and wine into his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. He continues to do this in the Holy Mass and through the valid ministerial priesthood of his Church. As his words elevate our focus to the food that endures to eternal life, we hear his call to put far more effort into the food that lasts. To see the sign that Jesus works with ordinary bread and wine is to receive an invitation to deeper faith that he is God. To experience the Holy Eucharist for what it is we likewise have to entrust our ordinary lives to Jesus. Jesus’ Real Presence to us is a call for us to be more present to him! We elevate our vision and our commitment to Holy Mass, where we worship Emmanuel, God-with-us. We find in the tabernacle waiting for us in private prayer the God who remains with us in all our ordinary needs. By participating in adoration we find an oasis of peace in our deserts where Jesus raises our weary hearts and minds and assures us he is with us in all the things that we can’t control. And gradually we begin to trust that Jesus will fill us with what we truly need and with what lasts as we hear him say, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”