Scripture Readings: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35
The essence of the Gospel message, the heart of what Jesus is trying to say to us, might be put in the form of a question. Jesus often used questions in his public ministry: “Who do you say that I am?” He asked St. Peter. “Is no one left to condemn you?” He asked the woman caught in adultery. “Have you no faith?” He asked the disciples afraid in the boat during a storm on the lake.
What might Jesus be asking us in the Scripture readings we hear today? Could it be something like this: for what do you most hunger? Is it health, wealth, and beauty, that is, fleeting things, or love, truth and life, that is, things that will last?
At the heart of that basic question, what do you most long for?, is this question: do I ultimately hunger for the that which satisfies the body, but only lasts for a time, like the manna in the desert; or do I hunger for that which really satisfies the heart and soul and will last in this life and the next?
We find in the Prophet Isaiah a question that Jesus may have had in mind when he taught his hearers and can still be asked of us: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2).
Jesus may also have had in the mind the familiar words from Deuteronomy and Exodus (chapters 8 and 16 respectively): “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Perhaps we need to ponder some on the whole question of hunger, since it is a central issue in the Scripture readings this Sunday.
We recognize that there are two basic kinds of hunger: physical and spiritual. What we eat and drink can satisfy our physical hunger, and we need to eat food and drink (at least water) in order to stay alive! If we neglect to do so, we die. We are never to think of physical hunger and its satisfaction as something evil or unessential.
Our spiritual hunger, even deeper than our physical hunger, only God can satisfy. The hunger of our heart and soul, the hunger for truth, for communion, for love, is something which perishable food cannot satisfy.
Jesus speaks in the Gospel passage about the works of God and what we must do to be doing the works of God; namely, to believe in God’s Son whom the Father has sent into the world. That may sound simple enough, but what is implied in this is preferring nothing whatever to Christ, as Saint Benedict exhorts his monks in his Holy Rule, because, as an early Church Father, Saint Cyprian of Carthage put it, Christ has preferred nothing whatever to us!
What Jesus is offering in his Incarnation, preaching and life-giving death and Resurrection is a new relationship with God that the old reign of sin and death could never support. Something new appeared when God took on our flesh and pitched his tent among us. That is the literal meaning of “incarnation,” to pitch one’s tent.
Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant between God and man, a covenant of peace and eternal life. The new covenant is a new kind of life, a different way of living, a life of love and service, of forgiveness and bearing one another’s burdens.
All of this of course corresponds to the way God treats each of us, with unbounded mercy and kindness. We are being called as well to a life of holiness which corresponds to the holiness of God. We are also being led to a life of obedience and trust, which corresponds to the wisdom and knowledge of God.
This is the work Jesus directs us to, and he not only points out the way, but is ever-present to enable us to act in an upright and righteous way. Jesus calls himself the way, and is always at our side. God became man so that we might partake of divine life, the Church Fathers taught. That is still true and our undying hope.
The children of the Hebrews were provided with miraculous food in the desert. Their physical hunger was temporarily satisfied, but God desired they learn a deeper lesson: that it is God who awakes and God who slakes our thirst. We are nothing without God. Earthly food will perish, but the spiritual food which God gives will carry us to the life beyond this one.
We can ask ourselves today: do I really hunger for the bread that comes from God? Do I thirst for the words of everlasting life? Probably few of us can give an unqualified yes to the questions, but we are being encouraged to ultimately do so, to truly prefer nothing whatever to Christ, who has preferred nothing whatever to us.
Little by little as life goes on we are hopefully realizing that God alone can satisfy the deepest longing and hunger in our hearts. May we hunger for the bread that lasts, and be satisfied with what God is trying to give us, the True Bread from Heaven, the only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, who is ever-present, and is our life and joy.
Christ is the one thing needed (unum necessarium) to live to the full this present life and to enjoy happiness without end in heaven with the Blessed Trinity and all the Saints.
“I will run the way of your commands; you give freedom to my heart,” says the psalmist. May this kind of good zeal be ours as well!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB