Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVIII: No. 3 - Michaelmas 2003
"I Am the Bread of Life"
God Himself becomes our bread and our truth, both together, unconfused and inseparable. The seed of eternal life lies within them...
by Monsignor Peter Magee
Monsignor Peter Magee was born in Scotland, studied for the priesthood at the Pontifical Scots College and at the Pontifical Gregorian University, both in Rome. He was ordained in 1981. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology, and a doctorate in Canon Law, all from the Gregorian. He completed studies in papal diplomacy and international law at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy.
He served in the Holy See's Diplomatic Service in El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Cuba. Additionally, he was an observer in the United Nations office in Geneva. Since 1999 he has been Counselor of the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, DC, and Alternate Permanent Observer of the Holy See to Organization of American States. He was named a Prelate of Honor of His Holiness (Reverend Monsignor) in 2001.
The following homily on John's Gospel on the Bread of Life (John 6:24-35) was given by Monsignor Peter Magee at Mass in the St. Matthew's Cathedral on Sunday, August 3, 2003, and appears in Voices with his kind permission.
This Sunday we continue reading Chapter 6 of Saint John's Gospel. Last week, we read the miracle of the loaves and the fishes: this was a sign Jesus gave to elicit the response of faith in His Divine person and to prepare the way for His teaching on the Bread of Life. But the crowd misunderstood the sign and thus misunderstood Jesus Himself, wanting to force Him to be a political Messiah. So Jesus eludes their grasp by fleeing to the hills to pray.
The next scene in John 6 comes between last week's miracle and the Gospel extract we heard today: it is the further miracle of Jesus walking on the waters. In some ways, this miracle was a special gift of Jesus' love just for His twelve apostles, who were struggling to cross the sea of Tiberias (symbolizing the struggle to live a life of faith in the face of so many headwinds). He was making sure that they did not misunderstand Him as the crowd had: by walking over the sea He reveals Himself to be God ("It is I [I Am Who Am]! Do not be afraid!"), just as YHVH had revealed Himself to Israel by opening the way through the Red Sea. This second miracle again links Chapter 6 of Saint John with the events of the Passover and Exodus and, for the apostles, it strengthens their faith in Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Today's Gospel extract could be called the introduction to that long speech that Jesus will give on Himself as the Bread and Drink of Life. It serves as a link between the miracle of the loaves and the doctrine He will teach, and which we will hear developed over the next few Sundays.
The scene it portrays is rather confrontational, testy even. The crowd, like all crowds, seems to contain a mixture of sincere searchers for Jesus, opportunists and cynics. And being no fool, Jesus strips away immediately the pretenses with which some would come to Him.
The very first words He says are poignantly realistic, and not without a hint of bitterness: "You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves of bread and had your stomachs filled". These are words that remind us of the complaints of the Israelites against Moses in the desert when, in dire need, they lamented: "Why did you take us away from the flesh-pots of Egypt, the cucumbers and the rest, to lead us here to die of starvation?"
Ah, yes, the human heart, without persevering trust and faith in the Lord's providence, becomes -- and understandably so -- absorbed with what is most tangible, with what we would call today "materialism". So Jesus flags the warning: "Do not work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you". Again these words are reminders of Yahweh's words to Israel, which Jesus Himself uses to defeat the Devil in the hour of His own temptation: "Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God".
The crowd seems to muster renewed interest with this talk of food for eternal life ("no need to go shopping any more or spend money on food... yes, give us that bread and the one who can make it!"), and so they ask: "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?" And then Jesus drops the bomb: "Believe in me!"
People demand a sign
This talk of faith puts the crowd on the defensive; they demand a sign, apparently already having forgotten the multiplication of the loaves. The sign they ask, however, is indeed the sign that the prophets associated with the coming of the Messiah, namely, the return of manna falling from heaven. But, on His side, Jesus attempts to raise their hearts and minds to a higher level, away from manna and bread understood as perishable fragments.
First of all, He states clearly that the true bread from heaven and the true Giver of that bread are not what they think: the true bread is not bread for the bodily appetite, but the incarnate Jesus Himself, the bread to satisfy the hungry heart; and the true Giver was not Moses, but the Father of Jesus.
One can almost see the jaws of the crowd drop in collective disbelief. "This Jesus of Nazareth is God's Bread of eternal life?! You must be joking!" But Jesus, unperturbed, goes even further: "whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst". Eternal life will render the needs of the body irrelevant; indeed, eternity means to feast on God Himself. But to obtain the gift of that life, one needs to be open to receive the gift of coming to Jesus, that is of believing in Him, of preferring absolutely nothing to His life, His love, His truth, His goodness, His grace and His beauty.
The author of Psalm 62 seems to understand this when he says: "O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you, like a dry, weary land without water. So I gaze on you in the Sanctuary to see your strength and your glory. For your love is better than life. On my bed I remember you, on you I muse through the night my soul shall be filled as with a banquet, my mouth shall praise you with joy".
The Bread and the Word
It is important to remember that, for the Jews, the manna also symbolized the Torah or the law, the heart of which was the Decalogue or the ten commandments. These were God's demands of His sons and daughters based on the truth of who and why they were created. The ten commandments educate us to be true human beings in the order of nature (I-III: respect God; IV: respect parents; V: respect life; VI: respect marriage and sexuality; VII: respect others' property; VIII: respect others' reputation; IX: have purity of intention in relation to others' possessions and relationships; X: avoid greed). To eat the manna was like eating the Decalogue, the Word of God, God's truth about Himself, ourselves, our relationship to Him and our relationship to each other.
From the mouth of Jesus, and in the hearing of the crowd, this meaning is not lost. Jesus feeds the mind and heart with the bread of His Truth and Love. Only He goes much further than Moses and the Old Testament could ever have imagined. God Himself becomes our bread and our truth, both together, unconfused and inseparable. The seed of eternal life lies within them, and once we receive them sincerely, that life not only enters into and grows within us: we also enter and grow into it.
It is no coincidence that the Mass serves us at two tables: the table of the Word, of the Truth, of the Decalogue, and the table of the Eucharist, the Bread, the Manna. These are the two main parts of the Mass because they are the two main constituents of our diet for eternal life.
By receiving the Word, each of us, if our heart is truly open, is drawn magnet-like into oneness of faith and understanding about the mysteries of Christ and His Church. By receiving the Eucharist, if our heart is truly open, each of us is drawn magnet-like into oneness of love and freedom, the love and freedom of Christ Himself, the glorious liberty of the children of God.
The Word feeds our minds so that the strength our hearts draw from the love given in the Eucharist can enable us to choose, to act and to persevere in living the truth of Christ -- not only His truth about Himself and the Trinity, but also His truth about the human person and the human family (which is definitely more difficult to live).
Freedom to witness
So we come to Mass not merely to be edified, but to be fortified in living out the meaning of what we do here at this altar and at this pulpit. Living out means witnessing and witnessing will mean suffering, both in the personal realm of getting our own lives sorted out, and in the family and social realms, in speaking up, in working and in all other forms of activity which the Truth of Christ demands of us. If we could only understand that the obedience of faith is not a real restriction of our freedom! It is the response of a heart and mind that absolutely needs and must do what the Lover-God and the Loving God requires: if you like, obedience is a slavery, a slavery to the truth and love of Christ. But blessed is the one who can renounce the kind of slavery today's world offers us under the guise of freedom and embrace freedom in Christ which that same world has the audacity to call slavery!
Christ's claim upon humanity is not, for it cannot be, one among others: it is, and must be, exclusive; it is, and must be, a monopoly, for He is its only Creator and only Redeemer. The Truth and Bread of Life He offers are not one alternative among others; they are the Truth and the Bread of the Life. Yes, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but do not give to Caesar (whatever form he takes in history) the mistaken notion that he can tamper even minimally with what belongs by right to God alone: and what belongs to God includes marriage, the family, human life, human death, and the human being made in the image not of Caesar, but of God, and made male and female. And at the end of the day, all Caesars belong to God and will answer to God for how they have respected God in respecting His rights, His laws, His people.
Anyone, no matter what his political, social or ecclesiastical credentials, who thinks that there exist within the Truth of Christ, as taught by the Church, acceptable, differing opinions about pedophilia, divorce, artificial contraception, abortion, incest, extra-marital sex, homosexual activity, and numerous other moral questions -- that person has not yet understood that Truth according to the mind of the Church. Christ's untouchable sovereignty over the structures of creation and redemption has already defined these matters. Indeed, there may be many in the Church who hold different opinions on these questions: but many opinions to not constitute many doctrines, for the doctrine of Christ's Church is not defined by majority opinion, nor by social convention, nor by cultural trends, but by Christ's gift of the Magisterial authority of His own Church, and by that authority alone.
That is why we must come to Christ, not looking for ideas that fit or satisfy our earthly agendas, perceptions or preconceptions, or those of the "crowd to which we belong", whatever its name or nature, but to heed and believe, with open and sincere heart, in the signs of His Eucharist and of His Gospel, the signs of His Divine "I AM", His Presence, His Truth. Fortified with these, we will, for we must, reach out in dialogue and discussion, with respect, understanding and compassion, to all men and women of good will. Indeed, we are called and sent to communicate the unsearchable riches of the wisdom and grace of Christ in ways that are appropriate, creative and imaginative, but always compatible with the Gospel as it is taught and understood according to the mind of the Catholic Church.
These are difficult times; the questions are difficult and complex; they require of us great love, courage and compunction; but they demand all the more of us an unapologetic clarity and conviction about the doctrine and principles of our Catholic faith.
That clarity and conviction must reflect, on the one hand, the uniqueness of Christ and His exclusive sovereignty over humanity, and, on the other, the courage and fortitude of the true believer. Yet we need not fear, for, all of this, He will instill in those who feed abundantly with a noble and generous heart at the dual Table of the Word and of the Bread of everlasting Life.
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