Collecting Manna in the Desert
The Eucharist -- Heart and Center of Our Faith -- Part 2
In part 1 of this series, we reflected on St. John the Evangelist's account of Jesus' miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fish, a true supernatural miracle and not simply a lesson about sharing.
This journey of learning about the Eucharist continues in Chapter 6 of St. John's Gospel, for it is in THIS chapter that Jesus most clearly gives us the true and saving doctrine regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.
In this chapter, Our Lord shares what is called "the Bread of Life Discourse." In it He explains that He Himself is the true bread from heaven, that this bread is His flesh, and we must eat of it in order to have life within us.
Following this, we will hear how this doctrine was not received as the blessing it truly is, and that many of Jesus' disciples would reject Him, disbelieving that it is even possible for His flesh and blood to be true food and drink.
Unfortunately, this disbelief continues today as many followers of Jesus deny that the Eucharist is truly His body, blood, soul, and divinity, and therefore they are deprived (at least in part) of the divine life Jesus' wishes to give us.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now let's go back to the beginning of the story.
As Moses led them through the desert, the people of Israel complained to him, "Would that we had died at the LORD's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!"
Perhaps that was a little dramatic of them to say, but the Israelites were a very expressive people. The real problem was that they failed to see the spiritual freedom they now had and longed for the captivity of Egypt because at least there they had food.
In any event, God heard the kvetching of the people and assured them He would satisfy their hunger.
As it turned out, food arrived in the form of quail, and more importantly, though less desirable to the people, bread from heaven called manna.
Fast forwarding hundreds of years we see a similar pattern. Once again the Jewish people are under oppression, this time from the Romans. And once again, their primary concern is the fact that they are hungry.
When the people come to Jesus He says, "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."
In other words, you are not coming to Me for any spiritual purpose or to grow in holiness but because of the MATERIAL needs I can provide for you.
You are not coming to me because you LOVE Me, but because you WANT something.
Hungry though they may be the people have not forgotten how to have a religious dialogue. "Okay Jesus, you want to talk about signs? '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.'"
I imagine they thought they were being very clever, but Jesus patiently explained to them that it was not Moses who gave them bread from heaven but God the Father.
What is more, the Father wants to give this true bread from heaven to the entire world, not to satisfy physical hunger but to nourish the soul.
Well, now the people are interested. "Sir, give us this bread always." And then Jesus does the mic drop.
"I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."
As is so often the case, the people came to Jesus wanting ONE thing, and He says to them, "No. I am going to give you a BETTER thing; something that you don't even REALIZE you want."
I think we can often be like the Israelite people of old wandering through the desert, or even like the Jews of Jesus' day. We see that there is something Jesus can provide to make our physical lives better and we want it. Perhaps it's a healing or a better job.
There's nothing WRONG with these things, but we must be careful about our motivations because in recent years an entire "theology" has been developed around this theme of believing in Jesus SO THAT He will give us health and wealth.
Well, I'm sorry, all you preachers of the "Prosperity Gospel," but we worship a CRUCIFIED Savior. Jesus did not come into this world to make things more pleasant for us. Instead He came to suffer and die, so that OUR sufferings and death could have meaning and be transformed into ways of growing closer to Him.
Jesus did not give Himself to us only once, but He continues to give us this bread from heaven that is His very self every day. What is happening at the Mass if not Jesus giving us the true bread from heaven for the life of the world?
Jesus tells us, "Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."
I'm sure everyone here works very hard at their job so that they will be able to eat, but how hard do we work for the bread from heaven?
What kind of preparation do we do before receiving Holy Communion? Do we first confess any mortal sins that we are aware of as the Church requires or do we receive Jesus into our mouths while our hearts are still far from Him?
Do we come to church early enough to spend some time in personal prayer before Mass, or are we rushing in at the last possible second?
Do we say prayers of thanksgiving AFTER Mass, or do we immediately talk to our neighbor? Hospitality is a virtue, but one that should be exercised in the gathering space. Never must our efforts to welcome and visit with others be a cause of distraction for those who wish to remain in the church to pray.
Do we prepare to receive Holy Communion by fasting for one hour before as the Church requires? This one is a little easier to fulfill since the Mass ITSELF lasts around an hour. But it wasn't that long ago that Catholics prepared for Holy Communion by fasting from midnight the night before. There are stories of Catholics deported by Stalin to Siberia to work in the Gulag. On rare occasions a priest was able to celebrate a secret Mass, but only in the evening when the prisoners had free time. These faithful Catholics would fast all day even though they did grueling manual labor so that they would be able to receive Holy Communion in the evening.
Nowadays the fast has been shortened to one hour, so as long as we are not eating a sandwich as we pass through the doors of the church, we are probably fulfilling the fast.
I say all of this not to criticize or to make anyone feel bad but to point out the incredible importance and absolute necessity of personal holiness.
Our beloved Church has been rocked once again by revelations of sexual impropriety and abuse. We can talk and argue all day long about how and why this happened and who is responsible, but at it's core it's a SPIRITUAL issue.
Sin comes about when we neglect prayer and our spiritual lives. And usually nobody sets out to do this deliberately. Almost always it comes about through getting too comfortable with our religious practices as they are, simply going through the motions and failing to challenge ourselves to grow.
Even those who should know better, the Cardinals, bishops, and priests, can fall into this trap.
There is a maxim in the spiritual life that unless we are moving forward, we are moving backwards. Remaining in the same place is simply not possible. As soon as we stop growing, we begin dying.
So unless clergy and laity alike are making a concerted effort to live in the state of grace and to receive Holy Communion worthily, frequently, and well-prepared, we ALL run the risk of falling into sin, even serious sin.
We should feel blessed and joyful today to review these words of Jesus in the Gospel. Not only does God provide us with that earthly food for which we labor, He has also provided for us the true bread from heaven that feeds our souls.
This bread is His very self, and is therefore the remedy against sin and death.
Unlike the Israelites of old we come to Jesus not because of what He can DO in our lives, but because He IS our life. And we come to Jesus not because He can satisfy our hunger, but to ask Him to MAKE us hunger for Him alone.
--The Priest Who Shared this Reflection Has Asked to Remain Anonymous