“I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
This week we continue our faith-journey of unravelling the Miracle (Sign) of the Multiplication of Five Loaves and Two Fish. In the last two Sundays, we had encountered the “sign” of the loaves and the exchange between Jesus and the Jews in search of a proven sign for His claims. With the introduction of “manna” by the Jews themselves, Jesus captures the ancient word and uses it as a metaphor or a symbol of His divinity and His divine Sonship. This is where we continue our journey today. But before we continue, let us glean the rich gifts in the other Readings.
The First Reading (1 Kings 19: 4-8) narrates the story of Elijah, who fled after his defeat of the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18) and the consequent threats of Jezebel: “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them” (1 Kings 19: 2). He got to a point of resignation and prayed: “Lord, I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19: 4). Though Elijah was drowned in fear and saw no purpose for his life any more, God had not abandoned him. God still had plans for him. And so God fed him and prepared him for the task ahead. Elijah ate the food served by the Angel and was strengthened to walk “for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.” Whereas we can look back and see the connections between the journey of Elijah and that of Moses, who went up the same mountain, for Horeb is part of Mount Sinai, to meet God (Exodus 19), and conclude that this was a place of special encounter with God in the Old Testament, it is even more significant to note that the feeding of Elijah by the Angel is a prototype of the feeding of the “New Israel” by Jesus with His Flesh and Blood. Secondly, whereas the food given to Elijah was to physically strengthen him to walk up the mountain “forty days and forty nights” to meet God, the food that Jesus gives us, the Bread of Life, His Body and Blood, satisfies our spiritual hunger and strengthens us for our life’s journey here on earth and leads us to be with God in eternity.
How do we eat this Bread of Life gainfully? St Paul in the Second Reading (Ephesians 4: 30-5:2) gives us some fundamental guides to living the good life that would guarantee our constant share in the graces of such participation. He exhorts us eschew from grudges, malice, anger, slander against one another. On the other hand, he urges us to cultivate a life of kindness, tenderness, forgiveness and “to follow Christ by loving as He loved.”
In the Gospel (John 6: 41-51) Jesus makes a categorical claim: “I am the living Bread come down from heaven.” This claim constituted an obstacle to the Jews, who were listening to Jesus. They held tenaciously to their knowledge of the human origins of Jesus: “Surely this is the son of Joseph. We know his father and mother. How can he say ‘I have come down from heaven?’” They were merely judging Jesus from the physical human point of view. And so were scandalised that someone they knew so well could make such claims. Sometimes knowledge can become an obstacle. When knowledge claims to be self-sufficient, not open to other opinions and not ready to learn more, such knowledge can be dangerous and can easily slip to the level of pride and self-delusion. True knowledge is humble, flexible – that is, open to better opinions and to something new. The Jews were buried in their primordial knowledge of Jesus and so could not realise who was in their midst. That is why they listened without learning. They became victims of their familiarity with the family of Jesus. What would have been an advantage became a disadvantage because they would not open and let in the truth. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a well-known saying that we have not been able to completely extricate our minds from. Therefore, we are also guilty. How often do we concede to others’ opinions even when they are better? How often do we judge people from mere externals or accidents of birth, race, social standings, or even, religion? The value of an individual is more than the accidents of his origin. Man is not a product of his origin but something deeper and so much more.
Jesus’ response to their complaints: “Do not murmur among yourselves” takes us back to the Old Testament (Exodus 17: 3; Numbers 14: 26-35), when the children of Israel grumbled against Moses and against God. In effect Jesus is telling His listeners that their hearts are still as hard as those of their ancestors, who murmured against Moses and against God. Murmurings and grumblings inhibit faith and are signs of resistance against the pull of God. Divine invitation demands docility and generosity and surrender. Each of us on this pilgrim journey is invited, just as Elijah was invited and reminded to eat the food of the Angel, to generously surrender all and to accept Jesus as the True Bread come down from heaven.
Jesus reiterates the fact of His divine origin with emphasis on believing in Him as the prerequisite for eternal oneness with the Father. Then takes up the subject of “manna” again as a metaphor for His future sacrifice and self-giving for the life of the world. Manna was incapable of sustaining life to eternity but Jesus lucidly presents Himself as the “bread that comes down from heaven, so that man may eat and not die.” Once again, Jesus is clear about His identity and His mission – He is the “New Moses” offering the “new Manna” not outside of Himself but by offering His Flesh for the life of the world. “I am the bread of life ... I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh for the life of the world.” We shall explore the core meaning of this unprecedented claim by Jesus next week.
My dear friends, I do not know what you are going through in your life at this moment. I cannot even imagine who or what you might be running away from. Perhaps like Elijah, you have reached that point where your life makes no meaning anymore and you are about to resign and to give up. But I encourage you to take a cue from the life of Elijah. Look up to God. Listen to Him in the silence. Look around you, for He has sent His Angels to provide and guard you. Surrender to Him. For He knows all about you. He truly cares for you.
My dear friends, like the Jews before Jesus in the Gospel, each of us is being addressed personally by Jesus to believe in Him as the Bread of Life, the Living Bread which has come down from heaven. He has offered Himself for us in the Church in the Holy Eucharist which we now celebrate. As we approach the Eucharistic table, let us pause for a moment and ask for the grace of renewed faith in the Eucharist as the True Body and True Blood of Christ.