Food for the journey: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 6:24–35:

When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, 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.” So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you had ’til it’s gone? Joni Mitchell sand those words almost 50 years ago, but it’s been a human impulse for a very long time. For that matter, so is its opposite — the romanticization of what’s past to the extent that it blinds us to what is present, and what is possible. We get a little of all this in today’s readings at Mass.

The latter is a recurring theme in Exodus especially, as the Lord deals with a stiff-necked people who keep yearning for the “good old days” of their enslavement. By the time of Exodus 16, the Israelites had run short on food and had begun to romanticize their oppression. As they struggle to forage, they recall their days as having fleshpots and their fill of bread, and accuse Moses and Aaron of leading them into the desert to starve to death. Enslavement, even of the brutal variety of their experience in Egypt, begins to take on a nostalgic and even romantic hue.

The Lord takes pity on the “grumbling” of the Israelites, even in their ingratitude, and tries to teach them a lesson about loving and trusting Him. If they keep His commandments, He will provide them with meat in the evenings and bread in the mornings — in abundance, but not in excess. The quail and the manna were only enough to last for a day, except on the Sabbath, when it lasted two days. The Israelites had to trust the Lord every day for their bread and meat, and not try to stock up on either and assume a false sense of control.

In the very next episode of Exodus, we see a repeat of this cycle, only with water. Moses worries that the Israelites are about to stone him to death over their raging thirst. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt,” they demand, “to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” Once again, the Lord provides water through a miraculous event, even while the Israelites lament the life of slavery they left behind. They trust the Lord only so far as they can eat or drink.

With this physical manifestation of the Lord’s will each day, the Israelites survive to the end of the Exodus. The provision of manna and quail end when the Israelites reach the edge of Canaan — the Promised Land, where the Israelites will find abundance to sustain themselves, through the grace of the Lord.

By the time of our Gospel reading today, the manna from Heaven has become the romanticized past, and the present seems once again insufficient. The crowd just had their fill from five loaves and two fishes in the miracle of the Multiplication, and so they keep following Jesus across Galilee to the opposite shore. When Jesus gently rebukes them for just following Him for the food, the crowd brings up the miracle of the manna, demanding a sign from Jesus in similar form, immediately after seeing just such a miracle.

Jesus warns them not to set their hearts on the food of this world, but the food of the Lord in His form. In this Gospel, Jesus sums up the lessons from Exodus and the need for trust in the Lord rather than in the world. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus declares. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

It’s easy for us to scoff at the Israelites in Exodus and in Galilee, thousands of years later, for the romanticization of their oppression. However, this Gospel and the Exodus scriptures apply to us more directly than we’d like to think. Through original sin, we have a predilection to enslavement in sin, and we romanticize that, too — sometimes much more than anyone did in Exodus.

We see this least clearly when we live in sin and shut God completely out of our hearts. We do not have a frame of reference for our enslavement to sin at that point. We are like the children of Israel born into slavery, barely aware of any other way to live but perhaps yearning for freedom in the most inchoate manner. We do not know what freedom will be like; we have no frame of reference for it.

It’s only when we step away from that enslavement that we comprehend it. And even then, sin still tempts us to return to its confinement.  When Jesus comes to free us from that life of sinfulness and into the freedom of the Lord, we rejoice in salvation, but it doesn’t take long in the desert before we start wondering why we left. We fall back into patterns of that enslavement, trying to shut our eyes to what has been revealed to us, hoping to return to the “good old days” of sin, while the degrading and destructive reality of that enslavement rapidly recedes from our minds.

It is for that reason that the Lord provides us with the new manna — the Lord, in the Eucharist. This is food for our journey, strengthening us in all our stiff-neckedness, through the desert into the Promised Land. We may sin, we may rebel, but the Lord is ever present to sustain us and to return us to His nation, leading us in our lengthy trek to salvation. In the end, it’s not the physical food itself that brings us to the Promised Land — it is the trust in the Lord and His goodness that sees us through, that nourishes us spiritually to sustain us.

So yes, we don’t always know what we had until it’s gone. But until we let our lives in sin go, we won’t know what we truly have before us. Rather than park ourselves on a lot, we can find our way to paradise, if we love, trust, and serve the Lord.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Desert” by Nicolas Poussin, 1637-39. On display in the Louvre; via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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