It's amazing how often it all boils down to food, isn't it?
It's tempting to say we like to eat. And true enough, we do. Just look around us today, with the popularity of the Food Network, "foodie" blogs, and new restaurants springing up all the time. We love our food, in all its forms. We love good food, as evidenced by the popularity of farmers markets, gourmet restaurants, and the organic food movement. And we love cheap food, as evidenced by the ever-popular fast food chains, available on every corner.
But while it is true that we like to eat, we also need to eat. Simply put, if we don't eat, we die. Our bodies go into decline and eventually we simply cannot carry out the basic functions necessary to sustain our lives, without the continued nourishment of food. Very few people reading this email, I suspect, will have ever been truly hungry. We hear about starving people on TV and in the newspapers, of course. But the truth is that in today's world, food is more abundant than ever before. It is more affordable, and more widely available, to a larger number of people than ever before in human history. And so it is easy for us to forget how pressing a need food can be for people.
In today's Gospel reading, the crowd of 5000 that Jesus had fed with the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes had followed Christ and the disciples on to Capernaum. They likely gathered some friends with them, who heard the news -- not necessarily the news of this wonderful man and his amazing preaching, but of the free fish and bread. Jesus, who could easily read their motives, said to the crowd, "You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled." It was all about the food.
But I don't think it is fair to say that all those in the crowd were lazy gluttons, just following after Jesus looking for a free meal. How many of those in the crowd were legitimately hungry? How many came after Christ hoping for a share in a loaf of bread, because otherwise they would not eat that day?
Today's first reading is another good example. Here we see the Israelites, after their liberation from their Egyptian masters, grumbling to Moses and Aaron that they would rather have died at the hands of the Egyptians than starve to death out wandering in the desert. They were hungry. It is easy to portray the Israelites here as whining and ungrateful. After all, God did perform miracle after miracle in order to free his chosen people from slavery. Now they were complaining about the food? How about showing a little gratitude? But we must remember they were not complaining about the food the way we might complain to our waiter in a restaurant if our steak is not prepared the way we like it. They were starving.
You want to shed a few pounds? Forget Weight Watchers. Try wandering in the desert for a few years and living off what you find there.
God heard the plea of his people and answered their prayer. He said, "I will now rain down bread from heaven for you. Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion; thus will I test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not." And so manna fell from the sky each morning, described as "fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground." Have no illusions, this was not a gourmet meal. But it was nourishing, and life sustaining, and that is precisely what the people needed.
God instructed them to gather the food that they needed for that day. There is an important lesson here. Though our psalm today (Ps 78) says that God gave them food "in abundance," our reading from Exodus says it was just enough for the day. Is there a contradiction here? No; God did only give them enough for that day, but he continued to give every day. Thus the people of Israel learned to trust in God for what they needed each day. He gave them only what they needed; but he gave that abundantly.
This episode from the past life of Israel was in the minds of the crowd that gathered around Jesus in today's Gospel reading from John. "Our ancestors ate manna in the desert," they acclaimed. What can you do for us? Jesus told them, "My Father gives you true bread from heaven," and, "I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never hunger."
The crowd, of course, could not possibly understand what Jesus meant by those words. He is about to reveal the most radical of his teachings in what we call the "Bread of Life discourse" in the sixth chapter of John. It is in this preaching where Jesus says emphatically that those who would follow him must eat his flesh and drink his blood. This teaching was scandalous to those who heard it, as we will discover in the coming weeks. Jesus is referring to His presence in the Eucharist.
As so I could not help but think of the Eucharistic bread when reading today's scripture lessons. Just as the multiplication of the loaves and fishes last week was a sign of the Eucharist, so too is the miracle of God's gift of manna in the desert. And though the Eucharist feeds us abundantly, if we follow the parallel of the manna in the desert, it also feeds us just enough for the day. How are we to take this? I'm not sure, but here are my thoughts.
There is truly no end to the grace that God makes available to us in the Eucharist. But just as the Israelites received just enough manna for their daily portion, when we receive the Eucharist, I believe we get exactly what graces we need for what faces us in our lives this moment. We truly receive "our daily bread." This is what we pray for. This is what God makes available to us. And he never stops. The Eucharist is offered to us every single day, on every single altar of the Catholic Church all over the globe. We know, through faith, that whenever we receive we will be gifted with whatever graces we need.
Who dares ask for anything more than this wonderful and generous gift? So when we pray today, "give us this day our daily bread," let us remember just what a miracle it is that we have available to us, and offer back to God our thanks, both in our words of praise and adoration, and in the way we choose to use his gifts in our lives.
WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374 | POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723