The Lord gave them bread from heaven…
The reading that we have from the Old Testament this Sunday, the eighteenth in Ordinary Time, brings us back to a critical moment in the desert experience of Israel. As the people of Israel continue on their exodus from slavery into freedom, they run into a shortage of food. This crisis allows them to see that the path to freedom is not as rosy as it first seemed, but rather a one filled with challenges and difficulties. The crisis of food was so acute as to let them yearn for the time they were slaves back in Egypt, where they did not have to look for the food themselves. The lack of this important element for survival provided the occasion for them to flounder in the God who led them out of Egypt and to grumble against him. At the same time, this episode also shows that God never failed to provide for his people. In sending them sustenance from the heavens, we are made to realize that the Lord is true to his promise, that he is faithful and that he provides for his people.
This is one point that we got from the readings of the previous Sundays: the providence of God that never fails. But our reflection allows us to see the fact that the Lord does not merely take care to provide for the material needs of man. In the Gospel of Matthew we hear this admonition from the Lord: “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” These are words that make us aware that there is something else that satisfies man, that fills him, more than any other material need could. Man needs bread in order to live on this earth, and everything that could raise the standard of his life here in earth. But even these cannot provide what man ultimately needs: the promise of life in its fullness. Man wants to live and not lose his life, to be able to possess it, and to be free of the fear of losing this abundant life that he holds in his hands. More than anything else, man wants to be happy, man wants to attain salvation.
There will come a time in our life when we will realize that even the things of this earth cannot satisfy us fully. This gift of wisdom unfortunately does not come to all. Not even the comforts that we had worked so hard for will be of any consolation to us, when faced with the longing to possess the infinite in our hearts. God, in creating man, has placed this desire of the infinite in his heart; he has placed the desire for God himself. In the end, only God can fully satisfy the ultimate yearning of the human heart. How right was St. Augustine—himself an expert in matters of the human heart—when he said these famous words in his Confessions: “our heart is restless until it rests in you”!
Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you: It is in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, that we find the fulfillment of this desire: he is, to use the words of an old Christian hymn, the “desire of the ages”. Not only does he propose to give the bread that would really satisfy man, but rather, he himself is that food that satisfies man’s hunger for salvation. Not only does he impart words of everlasting life, but he gives divine life itself through the gift of his own self. Jesus gives man his very life, the one that he had received from his Father eternally. He gave it up for us on the cross; he continues to give it to us in the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Jesus is the true bread that had come down from heaven: It is in the Eucharist that we receive the life of God, and the assurance that we will receive this very life that knows no end in heaven. In the Eucharist we receive the great gift of God’s eternal life.
Received worthily, the Bread of Life that is the Eucharist has the power to change our life, transforming it as such that God’s own divine life is wonderfully re-created in our own. This is the effect of the Eucharist; the deep friendship which we establish with the Lord in Holy Communion allow us to partake of his divine nature, making us holy, more loving, more patient, understanding, and generous. It makes that which is good more attractive for me, enabling me to yearn for goodness even more, while allowing me to see the true ugliness of sin and separation from God, making me hate sin all the more. Constant union with Christ in the Eucharist begets love, and makes it stronger.
This is both a gift and a challenge. In the Second Reading, from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians, we hear these words: I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; that is not how you learned Christ. You should do away with the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, 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. To put away the old self, and be renewed, the image of God, in righteousness and holiness of truth. We should not leave Holy Communion in the same way that we had entered it! We should strive to change our life and the way we see things. What a pity if we continue receiving our Lord in Holy Communion, and live as if he had not touched our lives! What a huge waste of grace, and what a big scandal for men that would be, if we who are supposed to be friends of the Lord act as if we didn’t have anything to do with him!
May this be an occasion of self-examination for all of us: Do I allow myself to be changed by this friendship that I enjoy with the Son of God, whenever I receive his most sacred Body, and his precious Blood in Holy Communion? Do I strive to cooperate with the grace received, in order that in my life it is not I but Christ living in me? AMEN.