The Last Supper, 1467, Dierik Bouts, Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven, Belgium.
“I am the bread of life….” John 6:35
The greatest prophet in the Old Testament was Moses. The 10 Commandments were delivered into his hands by God on Mount Sinai. God spoke to him in the burning bush and revealed the sacred name YAHWEH to him. He guided the people out of Egypt through the waters into freedom. Yet despite all that, despite leading the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, Moses was destined never to enter the Promised Land, just see it from a distance before he died. Scholars ever afterwards have wondered why. Today’s first reading is their favorite explanation. The Israelite murmuring, complaining, grumbling about their condition and discomfort seemed to suggest a lack of trust in God. Perhaps God expected more of Moses in dealing with that; perhaps God blamed Moses for the distrust the people seemed to have in God. Scripture does not answer the question. All we know is that it seems God does not like to be distrusted. One of God’s many qualities is loyalty: if God says something will be done, it will be done. The Israelites were promised the Promised Land (clearly), but moaned about how long it was taking and how uncomfortable things were as they waited, even to suggesting that they were better off in Egyptian slavery!
Today’s gospel has a little reflection of this attitude: “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do?” This, of course, was immediately after the miracle of the loaves and fishes (last week’s gospel), paralleling the miraculous manna in the desert sent to calm the nerves of the wandering Hebrews centuries before. The contemporaries of Jesus were, in a way, going through the same experience as their predecessors – and remaining just as skeptical. Then came the critical response to their question quoted above demanding (another) sign from Jesus so that they could believe in him. They had chosen a singular miracle from the past, the astonishing appearance of manna in the desert which had nourished their ancestors. Jesus points out that this food, like everything else, eventually perished or stopped, even this bread from heaven. But, Jesus pointed out, the bread he would give them would be eternally life-giving. Of course they wanted that bread: “Sir, give us this bread always”. And then the answer: “I am the bread of life…” This bread will never perish, never run out, never fail in any way. It is to be trusted. And just as one of God’s qualities is loyalty, Jesus has stood by this promise ever since. It is the heart of the Christian faith, the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. Around this circles all the life of the church, the life of Christians everywhere. As stated in the famous “Lima Text” of the World Council of Church’s document, p.14, #14:
In the celebration of the eucharist, Christ gathers, teaches and nourishes the Church. It is Christ who invites to the meal and who presides at it. He is the shepherd who leads the people of God, the prophet who announces the Word of God, the priest who celebrates the mystery of God. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Paper No. 111, Geneva, 1982.
This is Jesus’ way of fulfilling his promise to be with us to the end of time, another instance of his loyalty towards us. Just as Jesus strengthens us in this central act, we in return give thanks, the actual meaning of the word eucharist. This is the strength with which we face life’s crises and demands. With the Lord firmly planted within us, we Christians can face both impossible odds and wondrous happiness with the confidence of God’s children. No wonder those people back then wanted him to give them this bread always. We still do, thousands of years later, only now we don’t grumble; we say “thanks”.
SANTA CEIA E O PEIXE AZUL, Sagrado, http://menote.art.br/wordpress/