Food is a big part of life – who does not enjoy eating? God has blessed us with an abundance of delicious things to eat. Nowadays food is cheaper and more plentiful and there is more variety available than ever before in history. So the idea of scarcity, at least for most people in this country (certainly not everyone everywhere), of the idea that there might not be enough food from one day to the next, is something that probably most of us have never experienced. I think we got a taste of it at the beginning of the lockdowns last year, when if you remember huge sections in grocery stores were empty, when I heard that some mothers were calling around looking for baby formula – that was the first time in my memory experiencing this kind of thing. And hopefully the last.
I would say it was an unsettling experience, but I didn’t go hungry. But this was not the case for the Israelites traveling through the Sinai desert after fleeing from slavery in Egypt, as we heard in our first reading. Not much grows in the desert, and they were starting to get a little hungry, and they getting even more anxious. And so they started to grumble to Moses. Even though they had already witnessed numerous incredible miracles and signs that the Lord had performed in helping them escape from Egypt, they doubted that the Lord would save them from starvation in the desert. In fact, they even wished that they had never left their life of slavery in Egypt; at least there they had enough to eat! So the Lord reassured the Israelites: every day He would send from heaven bread in the morning – manna – and quail in the evening. God Himself would feed His people in their journey through the desert. They just had to put their trust in Him.
In the Israelites’ complaining and groaning, we hear expressed an all-too-common aspect of human nature: the desire for personal comfort and safety above all else. They preferred to be enslaved as long as it meant not having all the food they wanted. If we view our lives purely in physical terms, then our goal in life – our highest value – will be to maximize physical pleasure and minimize physical pain. In a secular age, what is good is anything that helps us fulfill our physical and emotional desires and what is evil is anything that tries to prevent us from doing so. Human nature doesn’t really change that much.
But God desires so much more for us than this. And He has so much more than this in store for us. But just as the Israelites doubted that the Lord would care for them, and doubted that He could care for them, how often do people today do the same? And how often do people focus only on maximizing physical pleasure and minimizing physical pain in this life, putting all their time, all their energy, all their resources, into pursuing this? When we all know – although would prefer to ignore – that this life here on earth is only temporary and will come to an end.
The thing is, this pursuit of physical pleasure or comfort and avoidance of physical pain or discomfort never satisfies us. No matter how much we ate at our last meal, no matter much food there was and how delicious it was, we’re going to get hungry again. We’re going to need more food. And how often do we feel completely content with what we have? If we look on a historical and societal level, it would seem that contentment is pretty rare. Think of how everything keeps getting bigger, better, more extravagant. The expectations for what is considered a comfortable life keep increasing. For example, even though the size of the average American family keeps decreasing, the size of the average new home keeps increasing. I think of my grandparents: they never went anywhere on vacation. They just didn’t have the money. They might drive down to Terre Haute in Indiana once a year to visit one of their sisters who was in the convent there; that was about it. They couldn’t have dreamed of all the traveling that I have been able to do.
And this is not to say we should just feel guilty and miserable for all the good things that we are blessed with, never do anything, and live only on water and bread crusts. What I am saying is that we should count our blessings more, be thankful for them, never take them for granted, and not always default to the pursuit of more, better, more extravagant that is the modus operandi of our society. Instead, let’s listen again to the words of Christ from today’s Gospel: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Jesus was responding to the crowd that had followed him after he had fed the 5,000. He said to them that they were looking for him because he fed them with physical bread and they wanted more; they were hungry again. They were setting their sights too low; they were focused only on this life, this brief life with all its limitations and disappointments, and all their energies were going towards maximizing their physical pleasure and minimizing their physical discomfort. Jesus is telling them: there’s so much more for you! There’s so much more that I – and only I – can give you! You are setting your sights too low, because you are setting them only on this world!
So, if we are not to work for the food that perishes, then how do we work for the food that endures for eternal life? How do we go about doing what Jesus calls us to do? Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” Clearly, he is identifying himself as the one whom God has sent; he tells the crowd to believe in Him. So they ask for a sign: Moses, after all, produced all that bread in the desert. Jesus sets the record straight: it was not Moses who fed them but rather God himself. And then, in response to their request to “give us this bread always”, Jesus identifies himself as the “Bread of Life”, the bread that comes down from heaven, and that “whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
In saying these things, Jesus is preparing them for what he is going to say next, which we will be hearing in next Sunday’s Gospel. He’s preparing them to hear that His flesh and His blood are the food that the Father is sending – the new and perfect manna – that He himself will feed us so that we might have eternal life.
Jesus is the Bread of Life. He didn’t say, “I bring the bread of life”; he said, “I am the Bread of Life.” He wants to feed us with his flesh and blood so that we might have eternal life. He wants us to believe in Him, that he is the one whom the Father has sent for our salvation, and that he has the power to give us his flesh and blood and in doing so lead us to eternal life.
This is our faith; this is what Jesus teaches, and it is what the Church has taught since the time of Christ. And if this is what we believe, then how should it change how we live our lives? Do we live, as St. Paul says in our second reading, “as the Gentiles do”? In other words, do we live our Catholic faith – our faith in Christ – in such a way that how we live looks differently than how the rest of the world lives? St Paul tells us that we should live differently from others, that we should “put on a new self.” If we have been baptized into Christ, we have become a new person, and so should live accordingly. The world’s rat race for more and more, the constant, frenetic activity and busy-ness of the world that gets in the way of prayer and in spending time in service to others – this should not be our way of life. Perhaps it means we will not “fit in”; perhaps some people will think us odd or will disagree with how we live our lives. Perhaps we will be overlooked for promotions, or we will have less money and fewer opportunities. No matter: we are setting our sights higher than this world, beyond this world.
And we do not do this alone: we ought to do it together, as a community of faith. And Jesus Christ is always with us, feeding us with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist as our food for the journey through this life to the next.