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.