Food is essential for life; to eat well is a sign that one is healthy and growing. Today we are being challenged to evaluate objectively how we react and act when food is before our eyes. Some people take food for granted; others thank God and the provider even before eating, while others complain nostalgically even without any valid reason. Today Jesus teaches us to look at God as the source for the most satisfying nutrition in Jesus the bread of life
First reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Visitors to the Sinai desert can today trace the suggested routes that ancient Israel’s followed through this wilderness while escaping from forced labour to retake the Promised Land. An expert on the region, Burton Bernstein in his book Sinai, The Great and Terrible Wilderness, The Viking Press, New York 1979 describes the exodus as one of the greatest and best known tales of survival, freedom and revelation. Of all the probable routes only two; that is the Southern or traditional Route and the Northern or scientific one seem geographically favorable. The southern journey ascribe to the dramatized escape from Egypt through the parted Red Sea somewhere in the vicinity of the Bitter Lakes, near present-day Ismalia as walls of the sea entombed the Egyptian army while the fleeing refugees proceeded southeast along the Sinai coast. Instead, those who support the northern route theory argue that the escapees did not cross the Red Sea but the Reed Sea/Yam Suph, meaning, the marshy El Tina Plaines region along the Mediterranean Coast. Proponents of this Route back up their theory with the following logical points:
Both manna and quail foods provided by God for the hungry travelers are plenty in the north than the south. A naturally recurring phenomenon, manna is the secretion of two species of scale insects called Trebutina mannipara and Najococcus serpentius on the tamarisk shrub during the months of May and June. As the substance drops from the shrub’s leaves to the ground, it is cooled by the night air. If gathered early before the parching desert sun melts it, the manna provides a tasty nourishing meal. Bedouins in the northern Sinai call it mann and still use it as a sweetener. Quail are migratory birds that fly to Europe each Spring. Returning to their regular habitat in autumn, they fall from exhaustion after crossing the Mediterranean Sea providing a delicacy.
The fact that the occurrence of the manna and quail can be explained scientifically does not, in any way, detract from their theological importance. Just as the Hebrews saw the hand of God at work in every aspect surrounding their lives, so also did they ascribe these nourishing gifts from the desert to the loving provenance of their Creator! The religious significance of the manna became more apparent as Israel becomes a nation as asserted that: “God let you be afflicted with hunger and then fed you with manna. . . in order to show you that not by bread alone does humankind live but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” Deuteronomy 8:3. Since it was believed that the gift of manna would reappear in the era of the messiah; Jesus’ gifts of bread for the multitudes carried this messianic and salvific predicated implication. However as read today’s excerpted reading from Exodus we might be inclined to wonder why God has not seen fit to similarly solve the contemporary problem of world hunger. The issue is not how much bread is available but how it is distributed.
Second reading: Ephesians 4:17,20-24
Around 140 AD a Roman author composed visions known as the Shepherd of Hermas. In his third vision, Hermas saw the Church as a tower under construction that is being built on the waters with brilliant squared stones. These stones, he was told represent those who have heard the word of God and want to be baptized in His name cf. Hermas, The Shepherd, SC 53(2), vis. III, 2, 9 and 7:3). Instead, Origen held that baptism required an authentic and absolute conversion to Christ. Those who desire to receive it must first be purified by hearing the Word so as to root out habitual vice and barbaric customs so that they are able to welcome the Holy Spirit cf. Origin, Hom. in Lev. 6:2
These early Christian teachers were echoing the exhortations of St Paul in his letter to Ephesians where he asserted that their efforts to overcome their past evil ways and to put on the new being created in God’s image had to be their agenda cf. Ephesians 4:24.
This process of “learning Christ” Ephesians 4:20 was a lifelong challenge that required daily renunciation of all that is not Christ. Whereas formerly their lives had been cloaked in sin; baptism afforded them the privilege of being newly-clothed with grace and blessings. By removing the outer garments after being baptized these newly Baptized emerged from water and clothed themselves in white robes as a sign of their new life in Christ Jesus. Today St Paul is challenges all baptized to assume personal holiness under the rubric of ‘become what you are’, meaning; grow daily into the new being which you put on once and for all when you were baptism.
Gospel: John 6:24-35
Anyone familiar with the gospels will agree that Jesus was frequently present at festive meals and banquets. He was a guest at a wedding celebration at Cana in Galilee cf. John 2:1-11. He dined at the table of Levi, the customs agent in Mark 2:15-17. He accepted an invitation to the home of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50, and was happily welcomed by Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. When he was accused of gluttony and drunkenness and of allowing himself to be defiled by eating with sinners in Luke 7:31-35, Jesus argued that his actions were to be understood as a foretaste of the great eschatological banquet to which God would welcome all of humankind at the end time. It is within this context that the Last Supper gets its appropriate space.
Jesus’ offer of abundant bread and fish to the multitude concurs with the memories of manna in the wilderness and also a gift of himself as bread and wine in the upper room leading to the gift of himself as body and blood on the Alta of the Cross. As the baptized we need to comprehend the significance of Jesus’ gift as living bread. Instead the three questions and one request in John 6: 25, 28, 30 and 31 posed to Jesus by the crowd leads us to a fuller and more profound understanding of him as bread of heaven. The 1st question is “Rabbi, when did you come here” John 6:25. The answer is ‘you are not looking for me because you have seen signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat’ John 6:26. The 2nd question is “What must we do if we are to carry out God’s work” John 6: 28. The answer is that ‘You must believe in the one he has sent’ John 6:29. The 3rd question “What sign will you yourself do” John 6:30. The answer is that ‘I am the bread of life’ Ephesians 4:34. The 4th question “What work will you do” John 6:31. The answer is ‘who ever eats me will never get hungry, no one who believes in me will ever thirst’ John 6: 35
Jesus invited the crowd to awaken its spiritual hunger for the truth of his teaching. When told that they should work for the bread he offered cf. John 6: 27, 28. Jesus’ listeners misunderstood, thinking that they could attain the imperishable food he offered by mere human endeavor. Jesus indicated that the word required of them is faith in the One sent by God, which is, Jesus, himself. With their final request, “give us this bread always” John 6:34 the crowd echoed the words of the woman at the well in Samaria who asked Jesus, “give me this water so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” John 4:15. Both the woman and the crowd were looking to Jesus for an unending source of nourishment, a free lunch, a magical water source. But, on both occasions, Jesus was actually offering a far more important source of nourishment, the bread of his very self.
We are the people of the desert, like Hebrews we have been mercifully freed from slavery, we should be mature and resist returning to that mess. Like the Israelites, we look backward with longing to the good old days while ignoring the bad tidings we have been rescued from. Let us stop straining for future joy while present gifts go unnoticed. If we recognize this original weakness of forever being dissatisfied; then God will grant us his grace to help us grow up into mature adults able to recognise Jesus and the way the truth and the life. Let the Eucharist transform us into a community of faith that knows that only in Jesus, we live, we move and we can have our being.