Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sunday 18B: "I Am the Bread of Life" -- Dropping in on the Visitandines in Pembroke



Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year “B”) – August 5, 2012

“I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE”
[Exodus 16.2-4, 12-15, 31a [Psalm 78]; Ephesians 4.17, 20-24; John 6.24-35]

A striking episode in the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness after their escape from bondage in Egypt was the story of their feeding on manna, “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground” (Exodus 16.1-36).

The Hebrew words “man hu” underlying the term “manna” literally mean “what [is] it?” Moses offered the people the correct theological interpretation, “it is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat”.

On their departure from Elim towards the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 16:1), Israel faced a crisis of leadership (“the whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron”). Specifically, the people questioned their leaders' (and, implicitly, God's) ability to provide them with food, water and other means to support life.

Notable in the wilderness challenge was the way in which memories of Egypt were transformed by hunger and weariness. Egypt had been the place of abuse and oppression but now was recalled as the place of meat and bread (“we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread”).

God answered the rebellion of his people by supplying them with quails at night and manna in the morning. Though not reflected in the Sunday Mass reading, the spirit of the Israelites was far from adhering to the divine dispositions. People were greedy, taking more than they needed, and some even sought manna on the Sabbath, though God had given each family unit a double share on the Sabbath eve.

The text of Exodus 16 is the crucial background for understanding Jesus' bearing and teaching in every phase of his bread of life discourse (John 6:25-65). Jesus began his interpretation of the miracle of the loaves and of the crowd's zeal to find him by challenging their motives (“you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”).

Jesus then contrasted two kinds of food, the perishable and imperishable (“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you”). With exaggerated concern about the necessities of life comes the personal temptation to want to trust in both the bread from heaven (a free gift from God) and the bread of this earth (which is earned by the sweat of one's brow).

Jesus, in urging disciples to pray for one's daily bread (which can stand for all that sustains—including home, family, relationships), says that seeking to have it both ways simply exacerbates a tendency to anxiety. His gospel teaching plainly builds on the lessons from the journey of Israel in the desert, that God knows what people need and faithfully supplies all that is needed for life.

The crowd—as so often in John's gospel—ironically misunderstood Jesus' words about “working for” imperishable food. For Jesus, the only necessary work is to believe in the One on whom God `has set His seal' of identification and sent into the world (“this is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”).

Jesus said they only had to work at receiving the gift which God was offering. Instead, the crowd focused on their own performance of deeds to achieve God's work (“what must we do to perform the works of God?”) Furthermore, the crowd demanded to see an additional sign before believing in Jesus (“what sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?”)

In citing the manna story, Jesus reinterpreted it in several ways. The giver of manna was not Moses but his Father. The giving of the heavenly food was not past, but continues into the present. By contrast with the earlier manna, the food Jesus spoke about is “true” bread and it is his hearers, not their ancestors, who are the beneficiaries of God's gift (“it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven”).

When the crowd asked Jesus for this bread, his startling answer was, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never thirst”. The deep meaning of this truth Jesus will reveal in coming weeks.

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CHEZ LES VISITANDINES


During my visit to Pembroke, I was able to spend some time with the comtemplative Religious of the Visitation (formerly of our Archdiocese).  We sat on their balcony, enjoying a refreshing breeze and this lovely view of the Ottawa River. 

A simple collation was served as we rejoiced together in the Lord.