'the bread of life'
‘What is it that you really want? What are you really looking for in life?’ Today’s readings confront us with questions like this. You might think that we ought to know the answer to these questions. You might think that we could answer them straight away. But these questions can be strangely difficult to answer.
Take the first reading from Exodus 16.2-4, 12-15. We live in an age where freedom is prized. We applaud people who seek freedom from oppression and do our best to support them. Here we have the Hebrew people free at last from the lash of their Egyptian oppressors. But they are far from being grateful for their new-found freedom. They wonder how they are going to feed themselves or whether they might starve.
Freedom, of course, brings responsibilities. You have to plan ahead, choose, take action to make things happen. Slavery may be horrible but it has its securities. It gives you a guaranteed meal and a roof over your head and you don't have to think for yourself. In a wonderful display of human ambivalence, the people grumble about being free, with all its hardships and dangers, and hark back nostalgically to the days of servitude. How fickle we human beings are! We want things and then grumble when we get them. Not, you might think, a commendable spirituality. And yet God hears them. He treats their very grumbling as a kind of prayer, and the people are fed, and not only fed, but also reassured, that God is with them in the wilderness.
Read this passage about the people in the desert and think about freedom. It is not enough simply to be free. We have to ask, free for what? What is the highest good of which we are capable? What values do we live by? Can we create a society in which each supports the flourishing of others, and so all benefit, or will it be a society in which each is ambitious for themselves only, and damn the rest?
The extract from the Letter to the Ephesians (4.17, 20-24) invites us to think further along these lines. The writer points out that we are only too prone to live ‘aimlessly ... following illusory desires.’ Just because we want something does not mean that want we want is right or good. In this simple declaration there is something that runs contrary to our contemporary culture, based as it is on creating artificial desires and then satisfying them commercially. Generations have been brought up to believe that it is virtually a human right to be able to please ourselves. By contrast the writer to the Ephesians challenges us to ‘a spiritual revolution’. Who we are, in the core of our being, has to be shaped by Christ. A challenge for all of us.
Finally, the gospel (John 6.24-25) presents us with Jesus describing himself as ‘the bread of life’. What a beautiful phrase. The letter to the Ephesians challenges us to a life of goodness and holiness. Which of us could say that we have achieved that? And yet, slowly, over the years, we are shaped as we come to Christ in the Eucharist. At the Mass we stretch out our hands to the bread of life, and in a way that we barely understand, find that, over time, he lives in us and we in him. To say this is not to boast. Rather, it is to say that we are profoundly grateful. What we want to be is to be alive in Christ, and he makes it possible.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.