Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 2, 2009 – Blessed Sacrament
Today is the second of the five Sundays on which each year we meditate on the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which is entirely devoted to the theme of the bread of life. Last week we heard of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, the sign whose deeper meaning is explored in the rest of the chapter. The method common in this Gospel is followed as Jesus tries to draw the people on toward a truer and fuller understanding.
The contrast between them Jesus himself makes explicit in today’s reading when he accuses the crowd who had followed him: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” They ought to be hungry for a different food, he tells them, one “that endures for eternal life.” This requires, as we saw last week, that their inner selves be hungry, that their minds and hearts be hungry. There is also an implicit rebuke that they are looking for Jesus for selfish reasons, when, as Augustine put it, Jesus ought to be sought and found and loved for his own sake, not for what he might give besides himself. It is a theme dear to the great saint who thus applies to Jesus Christ what he often remarks about God: “Gratis amandus Deus”–God should be loved for himself.
The crowd has not yet reached this level of selflessness, however, and asks whether Jesus can replicate or surpass the act of Moses who provided manna for the Israelites in the desert, “bread from heaven,” as it was called. The decisive point in the whole chapter is now reached when Jesus replies: “Amen, amen, I say to you”–the solemn phrase with which the Evangelist stresses certain words of Jesus–“it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven. My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The crowd then begs: “Lord, give us this bread always,” and Jesus replies: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
The whole set of related symbols has been transformed: what counts as hunger and thirst; what counts as bread or food; what counts as life. Physical hunger and thirst, physical food and drink, physical life are now symbols of other, truer realities. Physical hunger and thirst can be temporarily satisfied by physical bread and drink for the sake of sustaining and refreshing physical life. But another life is possible, an altered life, and that can be sustained and refreshed only by another kind of food and drink, which, however cannot be received except by those who experience another kind of hunger and thirst.
Where and how this true bread is to be found Jesus indicates with the last words of today’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life,” he says. He himself is the true bread from heaven the Father is giving to the world. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Note the parallelism: coming to Jesus means believing in him–one comes to Jesus, Augustine also liked to say, not by walking some distance, but by turning one’s heart around, by believing. Believe, he said, and you have eaten of the true bread from heaven. Believing in Christ brings one the food that God himself is, said Aquinas, truth to be contemplated and goodness to be loved, the word of wisdom by which the human spirit is refreshed and strengthened, by which it is given life “for the soul begins to live when it adheres to the word of God.”
The first meaning of the bread of life in this chapter, then, is Christ himself in the word of life that he brings, that he himself is, which we eat by believing. It is worth the effort to make this concrete, specific in our own lives. If Christ has brought you a way of seeing yourself, the world, and God himself, then Christ is feeding you the food that sustains the life this vision discloses and permits and enables. If Christ has brought you to love and desire in yourself, in others, and in God himself a goodness and a beauty otherwise undiscovered, otherwise not appreciated, then Christ is refreshing your thirsty minds and hearts. Perhaps your presence here at this Mass is itself proof that you feel the inner hunger and thirst necessary for Christ to be all this to you. If all this is true, then this sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is something more than words on paper, or sounds in the air; and through it Christ is making the same appeal he made to those who heard him, to embrace in heart and mind the truth about you, about us, about God that he brought, that he himself was and is.