OT XVIII [B]: Ex 16:2-4, 12-15; Eph 4:17, 20-24; Jn 6:24-35
In the depression years of the 1930’s millions of Americans were out of work and many thousands were hungry. In a number of cities, religious groups set up bread-lines to feed the hungry. One of these was the Franciscan monastery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Every evening, the Friars, Brothers and lay volunteers prepared and gave a nourishing sandwich of bread and meat to hundreds of hungry men and women. It was interesting to note the reactions of the recipients. Many accepted the well-prepared and well-wrapped food with a smile and a thank you. Others, with heads hanging, snatched the food package and shuffled off. Some tore the bag at once and started eating as they hurried away. Most of them ate every last crumb after a silent prayer and put the wrapping into a nearby container, though some would eat only the meat and discard the bread on the roadside. A few discontented ones just opened the package and then threw the entire contents away in protest. The way those hungry unfortunates reacted to that little lunch is a lot like the way his listeners received the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel.
Jesus presents an introduction to his famous discourse on the Holy Eucharist in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and the Jews who had gone around the Lake and come to Capernaum searching for him. The people were looking for a repeat performance of their miraculous feeding. In answer to their question about his arrival, Jesus told them that they looked for him for another free meal and that such meals would not satisfy them. Hence, he instructed them to labor for food that would give them eternal life. True Christians, understand that real fulfillment comes from more than just making a living; it comes from making a life.
In today’s first reading the Israelites wanted their bellies filled, and complained, and were even willing to return to slavery just to have a full stomach. Jesus reminds the Jews today that full stomachs didn’t enable those Israelites under Moses to live forever, even though the Lord provided them with manna to eat.
Like the Israelites in the First Reading the people were still seeking signs, but now the moment had come for faith, a faith that lead to no longer living as the Gentiles did, just focused on immediate needs and concerns of this life and not seeing the bigger picture where this life is a pilgrimage toward eternal life. The Israelites who grumbled in the desert didn’t live to see the Promised Land due to their lack of trust in God; the people in today’s Gospel are being extended an opportunity to one day enter into the true Promised Land, but they have to trust the new Moses–Jesus–to lead them.
Although Jesus identifies himself as "the bread of life" (v. 35), he is not yet speaking about the Sacramental Eucharist in this part of his Eucharistic discourse. Here, the emphasis is placed on the Faith-acceptance of the teaching of Jesus. In other words, Jesus states that he is nourishment, first of all, as one who offers us the life-giving words of God about the meaning of our lives.
We must believe him to be the Messiah, sent with the message that God is a loving, holy, and forgiving Father, and not a punishing judge. Belief in Jesus is not simple intellectual assent, but an authentic, total commitment to Him of loyalty and solidarity. There is no reference yet to eating His Body or drinking His Blood, which will come later. Here, we are reminded that only a believing reception of the Body and Blood of Jesus will bring us true life.
In the Holy Mass, the Church offers us two types of bread: a) the Bread of Life, contained in God’s Word and b) the Bread of Life, contained in the Holy Eucharist. Unfortunately, many of us come to Mass every week only to present on the altar our earthly needs without accepting spiritual nourishment by properly receiving God’s Word and the Holy Eucharist.
When we pray: "give us this day our daily bread," let us remember that the Holy Eucharist is not simply a "snack," such as we might eat at a party or at lunch. Jesus not only gives the Bread of Life (John 6:11, 27) -- He is the Bread of Life (John 6:35, 48). The Giver and the Gift are one and the same. The Eucharist is not a mere "symbol" of Jesus; rather, it is a Sacramental sign of Jesus’ Real Bodily Presence in his glorified risen Body. As we come up to receive him today let’s believe that we are going to receive a bread that never perishes, but leads to eternal Life.