IN TODAY’S Gospel, Jesus faces the people who have followed him by boat after the feeding of the multitude. They are the same people who have been satisfied by the five loaves and two fish, which was the Gospel for the previous Sunday. John tells us Jesus would now speak to them about another kind of food, the food that he says he really wanted to give them. He calls it the “FOOD THAT ENDURES FOR ETERNAL LIFE.” If you eat of it you will not be hungry again, he says to them.
This reminds me of that other scene earlier in the same Gospel, in chapter 4, where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman by the well. There, Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman about A SPRING OF WATER WELLING UP TO ETERNAL LIFE. If you drink of it, you will not be thirsty again, he says to her. In John 4:15, the woman asks Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty again…” And here, in Jn 6:34, the people say to Jesus, “Sir, give us this bread always!”
In Greek mythology, we often read about the special food and drink that the gods and goddesses ate and drank, and which supposedly MADE THEM IMMORTAL. The food was called AMBROSIA and the drink was called RED NECTAR. Sometimes, this food and drink was also given to humans to strengthen them for battle, like the goddess Athena did when she gave it to the Greek soldiers hidden inside the Trojan horse.
There is also a Greek myth about one human king named Tantalus who tried to steal this food and drink from the gods to give it to humans. We are told that he did this so that he would also become immortal. But his offense was supposedly discovered by the gods, and Tantalus was punished for it by being hung very close to a fruit that he is never able to reach and eat. That’s why we have the word “tantalizing.”
I wonder if Jesus was aware of this Greek mythology which was taken seriously by people in his time. In fact we hear of many travelers who supposedly went around the world looking for this legendary “food for the gods.” In their own Jewish tradition, they have the story of the food that God gave the Israelite people to make them survive hunger during their 40-year journey. This food is called MANNA, which means, “WHAT IS THIS?” from the Hebrew MAN HU’, perhaps because they ate it without really knowing what it was. Later in the book of Numbers Chapter 11, they would ask the same question (“What is this?”), no longer out of curiosity but out of disgust (as in, “Yukk, what is this?!”). There was nothing else to eat in the desert but this and they started to call it “miserable food.”
But Jesus reminds them of what Moses had taught them in the book of Deuteronomy Chapter 8 about why God had given them manna as food. That the real food that made them survive the desert was not the manna, but God’s Word. That reminder happens to be also our Gospel acclamation today, Deut. 8:3 “God therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.”
Jesus also reminds them that the people who ate manna eventually died anyway. So the manna could not have been the “food for the gods.”
In the Gospel, Jesus explains to the people that they did not have to go very far to find food for eternal life. That the real food from heaven that could give them eternal life was not manna but the God’s Word, the “true gift of the Son of Man.”
In the Lord’s Prayer, there is a part where Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father “Give us this day OUR DAILY BREAD.” I think more and more people have been discovering this DAILY BREAD and breaking it to each other in the context of this pandemic. The food that could sustain us through this time of crisis: the FOOD OF THE WORD OF GOD.
In the Emmaus story in Lk 24, before Jesus broke bread with the two disciples, he “fed” them first with the Word of God—meaning, the Scriptures. He explained to them the Scriptures in order to give light and meaning to their painful experience in Jerusalem, exactly as we are doing right now. This cannot be more relevant to us than now that we are also going through a lot of painful, absurd and traumatic experiences because of this pandemic. Like those two disciples, what enables us to cope is the spiritual task of finding meaning, of making sense, of finding some light in the midst of this dark experience. This is what Scriptures do for us, as Word of God. God’s word is a “lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Ps 119:105)
God’s Word is also what brings people together and builds them into communities that learn to express care and compassion for one another especially during difficult times. It becomes the spiritual bond that builds solidarity among us, a sense of responsibility for one another.
It is good to hear testimonies from people who have discovered in the Scriptures their source of daily spiritual nourishment, especially in this time of pandemic: through Masses livestreamed online, through “virtual ecclesial communities,” lectio divina, liturgy of the hours, Bible Study, prayer groups, Biblia-rasal, Lakbay Bibliya, etc., which are becoming more and more accessible in the social media through digital technology.
What I consider to be most beautiful about our Catholic tradition is that the breaking of the bread of the Word of God is not complete until it leads to the breaking of the Bread of the Word made flesh in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict calls the Eucharist a SACRAMENT OF LOVE. In the lover, the Word becomes flesh. In love, we learn to give of ourselves, not just our word or our thoughts, or our token gifts, but our lives. Remember John 15:17 where Jesus says, “THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE THAN THIS: TO LAY DOWN ONE’S LIFE FOR ONE’S FRIENDS.”
In the Eucharist, we discover the food that nourishes us for eternity: love, unconditional love, total self-giving, which is what eternal life, divine life is all about. By receiving Christ in the Eucharist, we enter into COMMUNION with him. We become ONE WITH HIM, and ONE WITH ONE ANOTHER.
In Catholic Christian tradition, this Eucharist is given to us as VIATICUM, from Latin “via-te-cum.” It is the food that we need as provision for the journey to our true destination, the kingdom of God. That as we walk through life and get nourished by the “food from heaven,” we are gradually transformed without our realizing it.
As we receive the food of God’s Word, we become ourselves what we eat. We become ourselves that life-giving food, that sacrament of love that is taken, blessed, broken and shared. And the paradox of it all is that, it is when we are consumed, when we are able to give of ourselves generously down to the last morsel, down to the last drop, that receive the food for eternal life that can truly nourish the world.
(Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 1 August 2021, John 6:24-35)