by Br Julian McDonald cfc
At this, because he said: “I am the bread that has come down from heaven”, the Jews started to murmur in protest: “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother? How can he claim to have come down from heaven?”…”Stop your complaining” Jesus said to them. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them…Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died: this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat and not die.” John 6, 41-51
There’s a journalist in Sydney, whose weekly offering appears on the back page of one of the Sunday newspapers. A self-declared atheist, he is often bitterly critical of Christians, Church leaders and, in fact, anyone who believes in God. Every week, his column includes what he lists as “Joke of the Week”. The joke he served up last Sunday is one that was around half a century ago. In reproducing it, he unwittingly gave us some profound theology, which resonates with the readings of this coming Sunday. I repeat his so-called joke in full:
(Dedicated to the woman holding the placard, “My vaccine is the blood of Jesus.”) A fellow is stuck on his roof in a flood. A man in a rowboat turns up and shouts, “Jump in, I can save you!” The stranded fellow shouts back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God, and he is going to save me.” A motorboat comes by and the bloke yells, “Jump in, I can save you!” “No thanks, I’m praying to God, and he is going to save me.” Then a helicopter appears, and the pilot leans out and shouts, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.” “No thanks, I have put my faith in God.” Tragically, the man is swept away and drowns, whereupon he meets his maker. “I had faith in you”, the dead man exclaims, “but you didn’t save me. You let me down. I don’t understand why!” God replies: “I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter. What more did you expect?”
As Christians and Catholics, we can appreciate that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in our lives. We say that we have faith and trust in God, but often fail to recognise that God is present and at work in the ordinary things around us (like rowboats, motorboats and helicopters) and in the ordinary events of our lives. However, we get a little bit ruffled when a declared outsider makes fun of our contradictions and inconsistencies. Today’s gospel-reading confronts us with those very same things as we observe Jesus confronting the crowd with his declaration: “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.” To appreciate just what he was getting at, I suggest we take a few moments reflecting on what we mean when we talk about the “mystery of the Incarnation.” I believe we tend to look at it only as a theological concept rather than an event that can have a profound effect on how we live our lives. Its meaning is contained in the words itself: God came among us in the person of Jesus, as a human being just like us, The implication or corollary of that is that God is somehow present in us and can make God’s presence felt in everyone and everything God has created. To better appreciate the wider implications of God among us in the person of Jesus, we have to break out of our limited thinking. That was the very challenge with which Jesus confronted the crowd in front of him, who could not free themselves from their narrow-mindedness, demonstrated by their refusal to accept that God could work through a young rabbi whom they had known all their lives and whose parents were ordinary people like them.
At the time of this interaction between Jesus and the crowd, nobody really understood who Jesus was. That became clearer only after his resurrection. So, when he declared “I am the bread of life who came down from heaven”, he was pleading with them to see that God could also work through each one of them, all created in the image of God. Their insistence on seeing him as nothing more than the “kid who grew up in the neighbourhood” simply revealed them as unable to appreciate their own potential for good and their limited faith in the God who had loved them into life. Despite a long history of God’s dealing with their ancestors through life’s ordinary events, this crowd could not see that God could work through Jesus, and even through them.
There are a few other significant aspects of John’s account of the exchange between Jesus and the crowd. Jesus reminded them of the Israelites who grumbled against Moses when they accused him of leading them on a fruitless journey into the desert where they thought they would die from starvation. God provided them with “manna from heaven”, about which they were initially very suspicious. The word “manna” is derived from the Hebrew mah hu, literally meaning “what’s this?” Effectively, they persisted in their complaining to Moses by saying “What’s this stuff you expect us to eat?” Over the centuries, the manna in the desert (which was probably insect excrement and full of protein) developed into a symbol of God’s providential love for the people of Israel. Eating the manna came to be seen as a metaphor for taking in God’s love and allowing themselves to be transformed by that love.
Furthermore, in telling the crowd: “You can’t come to me and be nourished by what I have to offer, unless my Father draws you”, Jesus alerts them to the fact that they can’t respond to God under their own steam. They have to be sensitive to God’s Spirit alive and active within the depths of their being. We, too, know that there is a longing for God deep within our hearts, and that, in the long run, God is the only one who will ever satisfy us.
Manna was and is a metaphor that is expansive in its meaning. To the Israelites, it was the sign of God’s providential presence among them. For us, it is the kindness, support, compassion and care we extend to others and receive from them. It is the encouragement, affirmation and love we give and receive. It is the nourishment we give to and receive from each other on our journey to the fullness of our humanity.
Today’s gospel reading is complemented by the story of the prophet Elijah, who told God that he’d had enough of being a prophet, and asked God to let him die before Jezebel caught up up with him and killed him. Instead of giving him what he wanted, God sent an angel to nourish him with the food he needed. Nourished by that food, he was able to walk for forty days and nights and reach God’s mountain of Horeb, where he had a direct encounter with God.
In the second reading from Ephesians, we are challenged with the opening words: “Do nothing to frustrate God’s Spirit!”. If we truly believe that God’s Spirit is alive within us and is alive and active in the world around us, it is only logical that we will be alert to the Spirit’s promptings, and also acknowledge that there are times when we are deaf to them. It is our insensitivity to God’s Spirit to which Paul refers when he says: “Don’t grieve or frustrate God’s Spirit.” While we probably don’t set out to do that, there is a simple practice in which we can engage to increase our awareness to the presence and action of the Spirit. By taking a few minutes at the end of each day, reflecting on the questions: “Where, today, was the Spirit nudging, prompting or inviting me? How did I respond?”, we will sharpen our alertness to God at work in us.