When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” So Jesus said to them, “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. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
~ John 6: 24-35
Last Sunday’s Gospel gave the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. In this act, Jesus echoes the Old Testament prophet Elisha and his audience also immediately makes that connection. They exclaim “Truly a prophet is among us!” Their cry carries the Old Testament expectation of one who will come like Moses, one who feeds the people. As Moses fed the Israelites in the desert, Jesus feeds the crowds.
Food brings people together. Eating in the Jewish culture not only expresses fraternity and hospitality, but intimacy. The Passover feast was to be celebrated in the household with the father of the family presiding. Each person had different roles, the children would ask questions such as “what does this mean?” (Exodus 12:26). A family feast is to be a perpetual sign of the God’s chosen people. The mountain on which Jesus teaches the people and eats with them echoes the meeting on Mount Sinai. We see throughout Scripture that a mountain is traditionally a meeting place between God and man. The Temple of Jerusalem was built on a hill and the Psalmist sang: “lead me to your holy hill and to the place of your dwelling.” (Psalm 43:3). This episode of Jesus feeding the five thousand on a hill then speaks volumes about the kind of relationship God desires to have with man. By reclining with the people, Jesus silently says “You are my people- you are my family.” God feasts with man. In the Old Testament, the chosen elders ate and drank before God (Exodus 24:11). Here, God eats and drinks with the crowd who stands for all of humanity. He says that no one is excluded from his New Covenant which will indeed embrace the entire world.
Today’s Gospel reading deepens the comparison of Jesus with Moses. We step into the beginning of the famous “Bread of Life Discourse”. The people once again are following Jesus with great tenacity. Why? “I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” The true reason why anyone follows Christ so doggedly is a deep hunger, knowledge that he gives what the world cannot. In every human heart, there is a hunger for beauty, goodness, truth and love. Upon meeting Jesus, the soul sees the realization of its longing. A romance occurs between God and the soul. Not only does Jesus say that the manna came from his Father but that he is the manna himself. Imagine what happens when the meaning of this sinks in! They who were expecting a prophet realize that something greater than the prophets, even Moses, is before them. Hear the people beg: “Give us this bread forever.” Jesus cautions them from thinking of earthly bread which perishes. He clarifies that the food he gives isn’t for the belly but for the soul. He puts the aim back onto eternal life. Those in the world work very hard for material gains and accomplishments but they groan at religious duties. Some will spend six or more years earning a college degree but will complain when Sunday Mass takes longer than an hour. Jesus of course, doesn’t discourage us from working hard and succeeding but reminds us of our priority to seek first the kingdom of God.
The work of God, says Jesus, is to believe in the one whom God sent. God has sent no other than His Son Jesus to repair the broken relationship with his creation. On the cross, Jesus showed us this desire of God. He said: “I thirst” Imagine that the fount of life was thirsting. He who could give anything only wanted one thing: For the people to believe. Why did he come to earth if not to forgive mans’ sins and enter into covenant with him. Therefore, the desire of the hungry crowds reflects God’s own desire for us. A real relationship is beginning.
The people ask “What sign can you do?” Here, they do not understand that by partaking of the Bread of Life, this relationship is made actual and nourished. They again fall back into expecting miracles and sensations. Sometimes, we ask “What sign can you do?” But as Catholic Christians, we have a sign always before us! More than just a sign, the Eucharist is a presence, God dwelling with us, eating and drinking with us as he did with the crowds on the mount. Every time the host is consecrated, Jesus gives his everlasting pledge of his presence and love. By entering the church at the words of a priest, Jesus shows a foolish degree of humility, what we call foolish love. Because God wills to do this, we know he cares about our problems and our hunger. His very desire to meet with us rends the heavens. When you see the altar steps, ponder that they symbolize the steps of a mountain, the meeting place between God and man. In every Catholic Church, there at the altar, is the mountain of the covenant. On this mountain we eat not bread that perishes but living bread taken for eternity. Because of the Eucharist, we know we are loved. He is no distant God. He comes to us time and time again. Our daily miracle is the Eucharist and this is what we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our daily bread.” Jesus amazes us in his ability to take the ordinary and subsume it into something higher: the bread into his body, our souls into his.
The Bread of Life Discourse continues for the next couple weeks. We will experience the wrestling, wavering and questioning that characterizes all relationships. Jesus’s words will reach a final summit, wherein lies the answer to all our questions about God’s dealings with man: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).