Our whole lives are are a journey – even when we’re not physically going anywhere, we are always moving through time. And in our first reading today from Exodus, we hear about an episode that took place during the journey of the Israelites across the desert after they had fled from slavery in Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land. They started to get hungry. And they cried out to Moses, “We’re hungry! We’re dying of famine here!” So Moses in turn cried out to the Lord. And God’s response was to feed his people with manna, this mysterious bread from heaven. “Manna” being a Hebrew word meaning literally, “What is this?”, which is what the Israelites said when they first saw it. God was giving them food for their journey.
And last week we heard in our Gospel reading how Jesus took the five loaves and two fish and multiplied them so that there was enough to feed this massive crowd. On seeing this great sign, the crowd believed that Jesus was the Prophet, the new Moses, and they would have carried him off and made him king if he did not escape and cross the Sea of Galilee (on foot by the way). But they were able to track him down and, when they found him, were perplexed at how he had gotten there without a boat. And in his response to them, Jesus essentially revealed to them that he is in fact even greater than Moses, that God the Father had set his seal on him. So the Jews in turn asked him for yet another sign, as if the multiplication of the loaves and the fish were not enough.
So Jesus uses this opportunity to tell them something about themselves, and something about himself. He tells them that, being human, they’re naturally inclined to focus on pursuing bread in the sense of material, created things. But then he tells them that that is not enough. Created things will never completely satisfy; created things are perishable. As important as it is to eat – you have to eat in order to live of course – there is something even more important that God desires for us: imperishable food.
Just like the Israelites in the desert, just like the crowd that had followed Jesus, we too are hungry. We too are looking to be fed. And, like them, we tend to focus on satisfying physical and emotional hungers. That’s easy to do, because those needs are immediately apparent to us. When we feel hungry, we know it pretty quickly. And we think about what we can do to get rid of that hunger. Our mind starts to dwell on something sitting in the refrigerator, or perhaps on a restaurant.
It’s pretty easy to identify our physical hungers – and this includes not just our desire for actual food, but also for any created or material thing: our desire for comfort, for example. What do all human beings love to do? Complain about the weather! When it’s winter, we long for summer. When it’s summer, we long for… well, maybe not. Or when we’re working, and we get tired, we think about how we can get some rest. We start to think about that evening, or that weekend, or the next vacation. Or when we’ve been lying around for too long, we start to get restless and bored, and we look for things to do and ways to entertain ourselves.
And of course, we also have emotional hungers: sometimes we feel lonely, and we look for ways to alleviate our loneliness. Sometimes we feel upset or frustrated or stressed out, and we look for ways to relieve the frustration or the stress. Whether physical or emotional, these are all normal human needs. Everyone feels these things. And there is nothing wrong with trying to satisfy them or to alleviate the problems.
However – there’s always a “however”, right? Being human, we don’t always do this right. We often seek to satisfy our hungers and needs in unhealthy ways, with things that are not good for us. I think this happens more often with emotional hungers or needs. For example, if we’re lonely, we might try to solve the problem of our loneliness by surrounding ourselves with one or more people who do not bring out the best in us. But they’re the ones who happen to be around, and so we become involved with them. There are many destructive, unhealthy relationships, friendships and even marriages that are the result of this. Or if we feel some kind of pain in our lives, and we seek to make that pain go away by numbing ourselves with alcohol or drugs or pornography or various other addictive, unhealthy behaviors. Sometimes, we try to satisfy our hunger with things that are actually harmful to us.
Or sometimes we try to satisfy our hunger, but we go overboard and indulge too much in something which is otherwise not a bad thing. I think that this relates more to physical hungers. For example, if we feel really hungry, but rather than eating just enough to satisfy the hunger, we rip through the kitchen, gobbling up everything in sight. Then afterwards we feel kind of bloated and miserable. And we can sometimes try to satisfy emotional hungers by trying to satisfy physical hungers: like mindlessly eating or drinking when we feel bored or stressed.
Furthermore, we expend lots and lots of time and money and energy on trying to satisfy these hungers. We dedicate the majority of our lives to it. But, as Jesus tells us, there is a hunger in us that goes much deeper than physical or even emotional hungers. And it cannot be satisfied through any of the things that satisfy those hungers. I’m of course talking about the spiritual hunger that is in each one of us and that in fact God has put in us, so that we might desire him and turn to him, so that he might in turn satisfy us. But I think we often don’t recognize that spiritual hunger for God for what it is; we are aware of it, but we confuse it with these other hungers and so think that we can satisfy it through created or material things.
But Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that only God can ever truly and completely satisfy us. “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” And then he says, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Jesus isn’t telling us that we don’t have to have jobs to buy food for ourselves and our families; no, he’s saying that our PRIMARY focus in life, our top priority, should be working for the food that endures for eternal life. What is that food? Life in Christ. And how do we get it? We receive it. Jesus desires to give it to us. More specifically: first, we start with faith: we must believe in Jesus, that He is the One whom God has sent to us, and that he has the power to give us this imperishable food. Second, we must work to grow in our faith through prayer and the sacraments, the two primary means God has given us to grow in our relationship with him. As we grow in that relationship with Christ, who is the bread come down from heaven, his life will increase in us. He will begin to satisfy that spiritual hunger in us in ways that the world will never be able to do.
So we ask the Lord today and every day to “give us this bread always.” We ask this every time we pray the Our Father. And the Lord always hears this prayer. If we pray with this with sincere desire, we can be sure that He will answer us, that He will give us the spiritual nourishment that we need for our journey through this life to the next.