Our Sunday readings at this time of the liturgical year center on the “Bread of Life” discourse from chapter six of John’s Gospel. As we saw last week, Jesus’ feeding of the multitude evokes the memory of God’s feeding the people with manna during the Exodus. That desert sojourn marks an interesting part of the Bible’s unfolding story of God’s people. The dramatic liberation from slavery in Egypt does not immediately lead to peace and security in the Promised Land. Because out of fear the people hesitate to enter the land of promise rather than trust in God’s providence, they are destined to wander in the desert for forty years! This is a strange period in the biblical saga. On the one hand, God forges a covenant with the people at Sinai, giving them the gift of the Mosaic law that will guide them in what it means to be authentically human for centuries to come.
But also, during this desert period, the people must confront their own weaknesses—sometimes dramatically, as with their idolatrous worship of the golden calf and, at other times—like the account we hear today—they grumble at the quality of the rations they have to eat during their trek. Like cranky adolescents (or adults, too), they complain to Moses that it would have been better to die in Egypt with better food in hand than the miserable and scarce food they had now on their way to freedom! As noted in other passages in Exodus, the Israelites missed the garlic, the onions, and the meat of Egypt!
In response, like a long-suffering parent, God provides them with an abundance of quail in the evening and with “manna” in the norming—some sort of crystalline substance left after the dewfall that was as edible and nourishing as bread. As the Psalm response declares: “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.” As it would turn out, in perfect human fashion, the people would eventually tire of this heaven-sent diet as well!
This reading prepares for the opening part of Jesus’ discourse in the gospel selection from John. As was the case with Israel of old, Jesus’ contemporaries fail to grasp the depth of God’s gift to them through the person and ministry of Jesus. The true and unfailing “bread from heaven” is Jesus himself whose very being reveals God’s all-encompassing love for the world. The Johannine Jesus declares: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
I think of these words of Jesus in this unusual time in which we all are immersed: the tenacity of the pandemic; the sharp divisions in our public life and even in our church; the devastating floods and fires that create such human suffering while we too slowly come to grips with our own contribution to the threat of climate change. The list can go on.
No wonder it is also a time for us to think more deeply about what counts in our lives. As important as “bread” is for our good health, there are other realities that also can either enable us to thrive or to wither as human beings. What is the “bread of life”? Our scriptures such as the Gospel of John press us to recognize the importance of faith in Christ, of the need for earnest prayer, of commitment to the values of the gospel: justice and compassion for those who are vulnerable; a sense of humility and forgiveness in the way we treat those around us; a turning away from the reactions and patterns of our lives that are toxic for us.
The second readings these several Sundays are from the eloquent Letter to the Ephesians. Today’s passage urges us “to put away the old self of your former way of life…and be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.”
Challenging words for challenging times. As Jesus tells the crowds: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.
[This reflection is adapted with permission from Fr. Senior’s weekly column, Perspectives on Scripture, that appears in The Chicago Catholic, archdiocesan newspaper.]