Last week we heard the John 6 version of the feeding of the five thousand. Now we begin four weeks in the all-important Bread of Life discourse.
The first two readings just give us the background. In Exodus we have the story of “the grumbling of the Israelites,” to which God responds, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” Our Psalm response (always a summary of our Prophet) says, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.” Jesus will tell us the “true bread from heaven.”
But in Ephesians, St. Paul says, “You should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” In Ephesians, he speaks to a Greek, non-Jewish audience, so he adds, “no linger live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” But he might say the same about the Israelites in Exodus: grumbling for material bread. That is not eternal life.
The key word in our part of the Bread of Life discourse is “signs”: “Amen, amen, I say to you” (means something important is coming) “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”
A sign is something that points beyond itself. The point of miracles (the root, mira-, means look, wonder, be amazed) is not to get us a Mercedes-Benz, but to get us to think, to look beyond, and behind, the miracle. The crowd recognizes this when they say, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” Funny, though, because they followed him to the wilderness because he was curing the sick, and then followed him to Capernaum because he multiplied the loaves, and they’re still looking for some miracle to testify to who he is. (Our translation says, “believe in you,” but it might be better to say, “believe you,” as you testify about Another.)
Jesus says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” The Eucharistic bread itself is a sign, in two ways. On the one hand, it is a new bread: not the food that perishes; as he said in Ephesians, “put away the old self, corrupted through deceitful desires.” The Eucharist means turning from a focus on earthly bread to a focus on heavenly bread. The bread turns into Jesus; no earthly bread is left, only Jesus.
But it’s also true that Jesus turns into bread, he comes to us as bread, he gives himself to us under the sign of bread. There’s an important article in the Summa that I like to summarize as: If Jesus appears to you in person, or if the Eucharist turns into a child, don’t eat him! We eat the Eucharist because there Jesus has appeared to us in a different form, he comes to us as bread.
Why bread? Because bread is a sign of the spiritual work he is doing. “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The Eucharist is a sign of Jesus as life-giving. In it he fulfills our true desires: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” The Eucharist does not mean that we will never experience physical hunger again; that isn’t the promise. But it does mean that Jesus fulfills our deeper desires, our deeper thirst—our hunger and thirst for righteousness, as the Beatitudes say, or our thirst for the living God, as the Psalms say. Our physical hunger is a sign of a deeper hunger, a deeper need, and in the Eucharist Jesus comes to us under the appearances of bread, as a sign that he fulfills that hunger.
Jesus says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” They ask, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” The word for work here is the work for “labor.” In the physical life, bread gives us strength to labor, and we labor to receive bread. In the spiritual life, Jesus gives us strength to work, and we work to receive Jesus: he is the bread of life.
But the work is precisely to see the signs: “That you believe in the one he sent.” Jesus is the way to the Father. He is sent from the Father, and he comes to bring us to the Father. What we are meant to do in the Eucharist is to follow the signs, to know Jesus as our strength, the one who gives us life, and our deepest hunger.
True “participation” in the Mass is precisely this awareness of the signs. To eat the Eucharist without hunger, without longing for what Jesus gives us, is no salvation at all. But to see the signs, to live by them, is to enter through the Eucharist into the life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How do you keep your awareness of the Eucharist alive?