Our Gospel today can be divided into two sections. In the first section the Jews are murmuring about Jesus’ claim to be “bread from heaven,” which we read at the end of last Sunday’s Gospel. In the second section, Jesus repeats his claim and reinforces it with a further revelation. Setting up contrasts like this is a common technique in the Gospel of John.
There is a contrasting “before and after” pattern in our other two readings as well. In the first reading, we see Elijah tired and near death, journeying through the desert. He feels he can simply do no more, and he prays: “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life…” We recall that the reason why Elijah was alone in the desert was because he was fleeing for his life. The wicked royal couple, Ahab and Jezebel, were determined to kill him for pointing out the errors of their ways. Elijah’s effort to fulfill his prophetic mission of guiding people away from sin is what has resulted in his dire condition. He lays down, expecting to die – it is the end of the “before” part. Elijah’s situation changes dramatically when he finds himself touched by an angel! God does not want him to die but to live, so he provides him with food for the long journey ahead.
In the first part of the reading from Ephesians, St. Paul too is guiding people away from sin. He is writing this exhortation while in prison (cf. Eph 4:1). Like Elijah, he finds himself “exiled” for preaching the truth. Unlike Elijah, Paul is not ready to give up. His sufferings do not stop him from pointing out what grieves “the Holy Spirit of God” – an ugly list of the sort of things that dominate us in the “before” situation of sin: bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling and malice.
Perhaps “murmuring” can be included in the list. This is the behavior of the Jews in their resistance to Jesus in the first part of the Gospel. Staunch devotees of their faith, they have recalled that God provided manna for their ancestors, but Jesus has claimed that what he will give is much better than manna. This made them curious – until Jesus even made a bolder claim: He himself is that bread! He was simply telling the truth. But, like Elijah and St. Paul, he finds his bold proclamation of truth met with opposition.
The transition from the first part to the second part of the Gospel is marked by Jesus’ reference to a prophecy of Isaiah: “They shall all be taught by God” (cf. Is 54:13). Jesus reveals that, because of his intimacy with the Father, this prophecy is being fulfilled as he speaks. As he teaches them, he is feeding the people with the bread of the divine word, and he will feed them with the “living bread” of his flesh. Just as God satisfied the hunger of the Israelites in the desert, he will satisfy our hunger for eternal life: “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
The Jews who heard Jesus say this did not understand him, but we who have received the gift of Catholic faith know that Jesus is continually feeding us with his flesh, with “living bread that comes down from heaven,” the Holy Eucharist. He does not leave us in the “before” condition of sin, but feeds us with his own life. As the Catechism tells us, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324).
Elijah received from the angel “a hearth cake and a jug of water,” which strengthened him, in his new “after” condition, to walk forty days and forty nights. We who receive the Eucharist, the Bread of Angels, are renewed and strengthened for our long spiritual journey through the desert of the world. The period of “forty days and forty nights,” which reminds us of the season of Lent, teaches us that the Eucharist sustains us in our journey of penitence. The Eucharist also makes it possible for us to grow in the “after” condition of grace, so well described by St. Paul, a life of kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
Elijah’s destination was “the mountain of God, Horeb.” On that holy mountain he will encounter God, not in the violent wind nor the earthquake nor the fire but “in a light, silent sound” (1Kg 19:12). The Eucharist is also a “summit.” It takes us to the heights of our spiritual encounter with God. We experience him not in flashy signs but hidden in the form of a lowly piece of bread. Before Jesus in the Eucharist, we have a choice to make: either to remain in the “before” state of weariness and hunger, endlessly murmuring against the Lord, or to welcome the extraordinary gift of the Bread of Life and be sustained through all the challenges of our earthly journey until we enter the fullness of life with God. With such a contrast set before us, clearly the best choice is to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord”!
Do I find myself murmuring at times when I try to resist what God is doing in my life? In what ways do I encounter God in the daily events of my life? How does the Eucharist sustain me through all the challenges of my earthly journey?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.