Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Sir, give us this bread always,” the people ask Jesus in the Gospel today. As we continue reading the Bread of Life discourse in the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel, we see the large crowd that received Jesus’ miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish now seeking him out, hoping for another miracle. But Jesus is pointing them to something greater than what they have experienced before. Just as they see a reminder of God feeding Israel with manna from heaven at Moses’ petition in the multiplication of loaves and fish, they are looking for another sign that will confirm for them who Jesus is. Rather than feeding with food that satisfies the stomach, though, Jesus’ plan is to satisfy the deeper longing of the human heart, the longing for union with God. In teaching them that the food God desires to give them is not for physical hunger, they begin to desire it all the more. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
“Sir, give us this bread always!” If I examine my conscience, my heart, my desires, I will find that I indeed have longings which the things of the earth cannot satisfy. I can also see in my attempts to find satisfaction that the fruits of my own efforts, good though they may be, do not fully satiate. Think of Exodus and remember that the Israelites longed to be free from slavery and oppression in Egypt. That slavery and oppression was but an outward expression of the spiritual, interior slavery and oppression brought on by sin and the resulting separation from God. The longing for freedom, then, was not only for liberty, but for healing. Israel cried out from their place of slavery and separation, God heard, and He called them to a place where His covenant would heal the separation and bring about reconciliation. But even on the way there, the Israelites become discouraged. The longing of their hearts has been met, it seems. They have escaped Egypt. In this, the now-free people see only the earthly reality and forget, for a moment, the heavenly. For a while, they see their circumstances only in light of their own efforts, and mentally separate God from their actions and lives. As physical hunger kicks in, they grumble, wishing they had food. When God sends manna, the bread from heaven, they are able to re-focus, no longer on the troubles of the body, but now on the establishment of a new covenant with the God who provides. The manna becomes a gift God gives for forty years, that the Israelites may never doubt the care of providence of their Father, God’s action on their behalf.
The great crowd follows Jesus, at first, to satisfy their physical hunger. Because they go to Jesus seeking more, He is able to open their minds and hearts to understand the deeper truth. They desire both food and spiritual life. They are looking, not only to be fed, but also to be healed. They live in a state of separation from God and want to be united with Him. There is bread that Jesus will give that satisfies that deeper longing, that heals their separation from God and draws them into union with the divine. Hearing this good news, that there is a bread that satisfies, that believing in Jesus and coming to Him will lead them to life, they cry out “Sir, give us this bread always!”
We know that the Bread of Life discourse is about the Eucharist. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus gives Himself to us, as He is made present under the form of bread and wine. He truly transforms the bread and wine to be His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The Eucharist is not something a priest or leader gives us (though a priest is an instrument for the giving), but rather it is God himself who gives. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from Heaven.” If only we better understood what it means that in the Mass, God moves toward us, God is the principle actor, drawing us in, inviting us to come close, prompting us to speak with that great multitude, “Sir, give us this bread always!”
The sacrament of the Eucharist is not so much our creation as the thing that creates us. Indeed, a maxim in theology goes “The Eucharist makes the Church, and the Church makes the Eucharist.” That is, the Church exists because Jesus has given Himself to us, because His Blood poured out and Body broken for us constitutes the Church’s great foundation. And the Church continues to “make” the Eucharist, by constantly celebrating the memorial of the Lord’s Passion in every Mass. The celebration of the Mass is never meant to be self-referential, never focused on us, but rather to turn us to Jesus. Just as that 5,000-strong crowd continued to follow after Jesus in their hunger, so we who gather day after day at the altar share a particular hunger. It cannot be satisfied by looking at one another, cannot be satisfied by mere sharing together. Rather, the hunger we carry in our hearts is for that which only God can give! Our struggles with sin, our pains from human relationships, our disappointments that our efforts do not always bring about the results we want – all these remind us that left to our own devices, we cannot satisfy the ultimate longing of the heart. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” As we approach the altar, let us remember that we are being drawn there by the Lord, who called Israel out of Egypt. Let us remember that we are invited by the Father who invited Israel into a covenant of love. Let us remember that the new bread from heaven is not manna that satisfies for a day, but the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus, that prepares us for eternal satiety in heaven. “Sir, give us this bread always!”