A few years ago, I traveled to Ireland with a priest friend of mine. We were flying out of O’Hare on a direct flight to Dublin. However, after boarding, the pilot came on and told us that due to thunderstorms in the vicinity, we would be unable to take off until they had cleared the area. Perhaps a couple hours later, he said that flights could resume taking off, but that there was of course a big backlog, and we were about 40th in line or some such. Perhaps a bit like the Israelites in the desert, I began to murmur. Maybe an hour later we pulled away from the gate and got into the line up and waited some more. And then about another hour later the pilot came on again and said that a passenger was ill and that we had to return to the gate. The murmuring got a little louder. At some point, I told my friend that I was going nuts. He replied, “I’m at peace.” Maybe this was supposed to make me feel better, but it didn’t. On the inside, there was lot of murmuring going on. But it was much more than murmuring by that point. More like a full-blown temper tantrum. Then finally, after 6 hours on the plane, we took off and just 7 hours later, landed uneventfully in Dublin. So what would should have been a 7-hour flight was instead more like 13.
Now, at no point during all this did I try to calm myself down by telling myself, “Well, when my great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the US, there were no planes and they had to travel by ship, and it took multiple days – maybe a week on the high seas. And that was considerably faster than it used to take in the centuries before that, when it could take multiple weeks to make the crossing. And not everyone would even survive the voyage! So 13 hours sitting on a plane watching movies is really not that bad.” It’s rare that we judge our circumstances by the circumstances of every generation that came before us; rather, we judge them by the relatively speaking, very high standards of the present.
Perhaps it’s a bit rich to compare my experience sitting for 6 hours on a plane in Chicago waiting to take off to go on vacation, to the 40 years the Israelites spent crossing the desert on their way to the Promised Land. Compared to me, their murmuring and complaining to Moses were more justified. But even so, their murmuring was an offense to the Lord: in spite of all the signs and wonders they had already seen, they still doubted the Lord’s goodness. Their grumbling displayed their ingratitude to Him. When they grumbled for food, the Lord sent the manna from heaven every day to feed them. But that did not end their murmuring; in fact, it continued virtually every step of the way on that long journey across the desert. They still weren’t satisfied. And their murmuring and ingratitude even prolonged the journey.
In our Gospel reading today, which is Week 3 in the series on the Bread of Life from John’s Gospel, the Jews who have been listening to Jesus also start murmuring. He has just been telling them, as we heard last week, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” The Jews start murmuring because they know Jesus, and they see him as just a human being. In spite of all the signs and wonders they have seen him perform, they remain very skeptical of what Jesus is telling them about himself.
But Jesus does not back down. He does not retract his statement, or revise it to make it more acceptable or palatable to his audience. Instead, he doubles down, and says again, “I am the bread of life.” And he references their ancestors whom the Lord fed with manna when they crossed the desert hundreds of years before. As great as the miracle of the daily manna from heaven was, Jesus tells them that he is going to give them something even greater: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” The Lord gave manna to the Israelites for their physical nourishment so that they would have strength for their journey across the desert. But the manna, although miraculous, did not give them eternal life. The bread that Jesus is going to give, however, will provide spiritual nourishment – food to nourish and strengthen our souls on our journey through the desert of this life on the way to the promised land of heaven, where we will receive eternal life. And Jesus reveals here exactly what this “bread” is: his very own flesh.
He is not speaking metaphorically here. When he says he is giving his flesh for the life of the world, it is true in two senses: first, sacramentally, when he takes bread and wine at the Last Supper with his 12 apostles and gives it to them saying, “This is my Body; this is my Blood, given up for you.” And second, it is true physically, when Jesus gives up his body on the Cross the very next day. Jesus instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper and dying on the Cross: “two events united as one liturgy through which the New Covenant … come[s] into existence.” (Bergsma, The Word of the Lord: Reflections on the Sunday Mass Readings for Year
As I mentioned, Jesus gives us his flesh and blood as true food and true drink to give us spiritual strength to make the often treacherous journey through this life. But sometimes, like the Israelites in the desert, we can become dissatisfied. Even the great prophet Elijah became weary and prayed for death on his journey through the desert, even though the Lord had just triumphed through him over the 400 false prophets of Baal. Elijah was being pursued by Ahab and Jezebel who wanted to put him to death in revenge. The Lord sent an angel to guide Elijah on a long journey through the desert to – where else – Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, where Moses had received the 10 Commandments. Elijah was exhausted and at one point sat down under a tree and prayed for death. How many of us have at times grown so weary with our own struggles in life – and certainly often very real, difficult struggles – and just wanted to give up. But the Lord sent the angel to Elijah to urge him to get up and eat the food that miraculously appeared, so that he would have strength to continue his journey. The Lord likewise desires to feed us with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, so that we will have the strength to keep going, to not give into despair and hopelessness at our own weaknesses and failings, at the insanity in the world around us, and at the crosses that we have to bear.
The Lord desires to feed us with the Eucharist, and that is why he has given us the Mass. But sometimes He has to prod us to go to Mass, and that is why he has made it a precept of the Church, and one of the commandments, that we keep holy the Sabbath by coming to Mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. When we hear the word “obligation”, we might have a tendency to recoil – you can’t tell me what to do! We might even start to murmur. I’m too tired; I’m too busy; the kids have their sports leagues and that’s important too. But the Eucharist is our food for the journey, and God knows we need it even more than we do – that is why He has freely chosen to give Himself to us in this way. This gift is so great and so necessary that it is foolish to refuse it.
The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. Let us not be like the Israelites who murmured against the Lord in the desert; let us instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude to the Lord and give thanks to Him by receiving the gift of His flesh and blood with which He desires to feed us.