As all know all too well, there are good foods and there are bad foods, which mostly taste good. Many of us – not all of us – try to avoid eating too much of the bad food, or all bad food altogether, which means many us try to eat as much good food and settle it into our stomachs, eventually throughout our veins and blood system.
The good food out there for our bodies seems to be limited; fruits, vegetables, some fish maybe. The bad food for our bodies seems to be abundant, beginning with 158 Southbridge Street in Worcester, the address for Coney Island Hot Dogs, as well as all sorts of animals, cheeses, sauces, and all that makes food taste and smell good. There seems to be a wide disparity between the good food for us, of which there is little, and the bad food, of which there is an abundance.
When we move this conversation to the personal words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, we come to see with great wisdom that all food apart from Christ is eventually unsatisfactory, whether it tastes good or not. I don’t think owners of restaurants would enjoy hearing this sort of observation, making their living off of good-tasting food, or any good Italian mother who makes a killer sauce. As I said, there is much food that tastes good, certainly from countless restaurants who rightfully pride themselves in making delicious the many items on their menu, and from countless Italian mothers who make a sauce that draws you into their home. But our Lord, who is the King of the Universe, makes the all-important observation that all manna, which represents all food apart from the Eucharist, will still lead to death.
Importantly, our Lord is not teaching the crowd to not create and enjoy good food. The manna that God sent down from heaven in last week’s first reading in Exodus; it was the most delicious food the Israelites ever ate. It came straight down from God’s oven. How could it not be the most delicious food they ever enjoyed?
Jesus would tell us, “Eat as much good-tasting food as you want, knowing that much of it will hasten your death, and some of it will lengthen your life. Eat as much good food as you want. But when push comes to shove, when time meets eternity, when life meets death, and when death is transformed into eternal life, all that good-tasting food will not make one iota of a difference. When the big show is in town; when death is on the horizon, I truly hope you enjoyed the good food that satisfies for the moment. But I give you,” he says, “the one food that endures to eternal life.”
This incredible contrast that our Lord makes in this section of John, chapter 6, the Bread of Life Discourse, teaches and reminds us that there is only one food that carries over from this world to the next: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.” It’s the only food we will consume in this life that death cannot overpower. Every other food – good or bad for the human body – will lead eventually – sooner or later – to our physical death. And there’s no reincarnation. We don’t receive a second chance.
This sharp contrast that Jesus enlightens us to is an invitation to be one with him right now in our reception of the Eucharist, over the remainder of our lives. To take full advantage of this food that unites us to God. Many who had the Eucharist at one time have walked away from its weekly reception. The precedent for such walking away will be heard in the Gospel two weeks from now, where many disciples of Christ will return to their former way of life.
There are former Catholics who have become Evangelicals. There are former Catholics who call themselves born-again Christians. There are those who are angry at the Church, justified or not, who stay away. There are those who find the Mass to be boring, looking for a Pastor who is an entertainer. I’m not Rodney Dangerfield up here. This isn’t about being entertained; this is about being touched by God in word and Eucharist. The jokes can wait until after this holy experience. There are many with a lukewarm faith, not drawn to the power of the Holy Liturgy. And, there are those who call the reality of the Eucharist symbolic, which it has never been. Another human invention unknowingly directed at Christ himself.
I mention all these present situations, not with complaint, but with sadness, that so many have walked away from being one with Christ in the most intimate way we will know in this life. They apparently find it too hard to believe that God provides us food that overpowers death, our greatest enemy.
His flesh in the manner of bread and wine is the food that gives life to the world. A world that was dead before Christ has been offered life in him. We accept his generous offer in this Church with graciousness and humility.
“Lord, continue to feed us the good food of heaven, you Yourself, while we enjoy also some of the other good food we’re blessed to consume along the way.”
It was a radical transformation of what happened at the Last Supper. And it also tells us Christians how deeply rooted we are in the historical events of the Israelites of old.
There they were in the desert as a large, very large, group of people. An entire nation plodding their way through the barren desert. Settling here for a while, settling there for a while. But in the desert, where food is lacking, and where water is none. So, naturally, they complain to the One who brought them into the desert to live. Even though they escaped the daily slavery of Egypt, they still found room in their hearts to complain about lack of food in loud voices. It received a reaction from God. A very generous reaction. “I will now rain down bread from heaven for you” to eat and be satisfied, the Lord said to Moses. Moses was relieved, to say the least.
So, the many thousands of Israelites woke up the next morning and found on the desert sand this bread that the Lord sent down from heaven for them to eat. They ate this delicious bread for 40 years. Imagine eating pizza every day for 40 years! Or Coney Island hot dogs for 40 years, except on Tuesdays when they’re closed!
God gave them bread from heaven to satisfy their hunger. Hunger makes people mad, so in feeding them he really gave them peace. I know a guy who, when he starts to get very hungry, and this is his own admission, he starts turning into some madman, a werewolf. He begins to lose it when he gets hungry, so he needs food right away. I’d hate to be in his company on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday when we’re supposed to fast. God prevented the Israelites from chewing up each other by raining down bread from heaven. The Lord is generous.
Fast forward to Jesus. Christ takes this first reading from the Book of Exodus, this scene in the desert with thousands of hungry people, an entire nation, and tells this large crowd following him, “It was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” What is the true bread? The true bread is Jesus himself. And it’s not like the flakes of hoarfrost that fell on the desert floor for the Israelites was a false bread. It was real. It was what they needed at the time. They were hungry. They wanted some pizza.
The difference between their hunger back then and our hunger today is that they wanted some pizza. They called up God’s Pizza Store in heaven, ordered a few million pizzas, and God delivered them in the desert. The difference is that we want Christ, and we receive him. Who’s more blessed? The Israelites who ate delicious bread each morning for breakfast in the desert? Or, Catholic Christians who consume the Savior of the world, becoming one with the living God? It’s an unfair contest, and we win. We win every time we receive the true bread from heaven. We are the winners, by far, over the ancient Israelites. We are not amateurs. We are the Professional Receivers of Jesus Christ. Professionals! From the 2nd-grade to the end of our lives, we are the top-notch receivers of Christ our Savior.
However, this possibility of receiving the true bread from heaven has its foundation and beginning with the hungry Israelites in the desert after Moses led them out of the slavery of Egypt. The Israelites are our forefathers in what we know as the Eucharist. We can point to their experience in the desert and say, “God sends bread from heaven.” Being true to his nature, God was generous with what was needed at the time. What the Israelites needed and clamored for was the physical hunger within being satisfied. All they wanted was some pizza, and that’s what they received.
When God sends down bread from heaven for us, our hunger is for salvation; for eternal life; for seeing again those we have loved and lost; for bringing us back together in a place where death is no more, and where hunger is satisfied forever. That’s a far cry from what the Israelites were looking for. Our hunger is so much greater than what the Israelites were seeking from God, yet, our hunger finds its source in their desert experience. We are forever connected to the ancient Israelites who came out of Egypt. It’s a beautiful revelation of how God has taken bread, this basic element of the earth, and has brought it from the desert floor to our living souls. From eating breakfast to consuming Christ.
If that fails to reveal to us God’s incredible generosity and love for us, then I’m not sure what will do it. We are beyond blessed to be the ones who receive each week the true bread that comes down from heaven. It is the Mother of all free gifts in our faith lives. I pray with the deepest humility that God grants us the faith and capacity to accept and believe what Jesus is teaching this Gospel crowd; that he is the true bread that comes down from heaven. And that we are the ones who are blessed to consume this living bread.
It was a radical transformation, what happened at the Last Supper. From bread being pizza, to bread becoming the resurrected Christ. And we are the beneficiaries of it.