Prior Joel's homily from this mornings Mass.
Exodus 16:2–4, 12–15
Ephesians 4:17, 20–24
Grumbling, complaining. That is the way the Exodus story starts today. Not very uplifting, but at least it is honest and reflects an attitude that is often our own. After we get what we want, we are still not satisfied. The people have passed through the Red Sea and are on their way to Mt Sinai. They are in the wilderness, i.e. the desert area. The food they packed with them on the night they left Egypt has run out. So they start complaining. It was better back in Egypt. At least we had plenty to eat; better to have died there well-fed than out here in the desert.
Strange isn’t it? In Egypt, the people cry out in their slavery. God hears them and then with Moses helping, he leads them into freedom with great power. And now, they want to go back to the old routine, even though it was painful and degrading. They would rather be slaves and well-fed, than free and on a journey following the one who gave them freedom. It is amazing what will change our view of the past, change our memories of what we experienced. We want to be free from many things: free from fears, from cravings, from bad habits, from being abused. But being free means that things will be different. Like the Israelites, we will be in a new place and the food will be different. But there will be a new life.
God is not without feelings toward the grumblers. Now he hears the grumbling. But going back into slavery is not an option. He will feed them on the way. But then the community discovers that the new food is not like the food back home. It is different. “What is that?” they ask when they look at white stuff on the ground. It is the same question we ask ourselves when we see food from another culture, another people. We ask “What is that?” It is a question mixed with curiosity, reluctance and disdain all in one. We want food, we get food, but it is not like what we were used to. Living this new life of freedom is not easy.… We can recognize ourselves in the scene. We may have found ourselves in a dysfunctional situation or in addictive behavior, and suddenly, a door opens and we are free from the situation and it looks like a wide open space in front of us. But then, reality hits: this freedom is work, this freedom is new territory and I have never been here before. It is possible I cannot face the reality of freedom and so there is the temptation to go back to our old life caught in desires that are not satisfying. In our imagination that old life looks good. This new life comes with responsibility. Oh my, I’m not used to that.
Freedom means new life, but a new life with God who leads. With freedom comes a new self. But our freedom and our new self is not bought–it is a gift. So freedom means eating what someone else offers, what God offers. We don’t make it ourselves. Moses’ answer “This is the bread God gives you,” does not have to do with the content of the food, but rather where it comes from. It is bread which the Lord gives. The food and the substance we hunger for are met not just by any bread or food, but only the food that God provides. The bread the people are given is to lead them to the one who is giving it. The bread is God’s care for them along the journey. It is not just bread; it is God caring for the community in their new freedom. This is a new experience. Their memory of the past was focused on something physical, the stomach and good taste, but the freedom they now have opens them up to a relationship with the one who cares for them. The bread on the ground is communion with the God who liberates.
The scene in the desert is echoed in the gospel. The crowd in the gospel is following Jesus. But Jesus challenges the reason why they follow him. It seems they are only interested in another act of power, a miracle. Perhaps even another free meal. They seem to be focused on the bread that fills the stomach. They are interested in satisfying physical desires. But something more is needed for the journey. Jesus sees the bread as a sign, a sign of what? Of the Father’s care, the Father’s love, ultimately of the Father’s desire that his people live and not die. The crowd, like the people in the desert, seem to have a bad memory. They think Moses gave the bread. They forgot that Moses made it clear where the bread came from. The bread came from the Father not from Moses and certainly not from anyone of them.
Jesus is trying to have the crowd move from what is bread to who is giving the bread. The bread is not an end in itself. The bread, says Jesus is a sign, a sign of the giver. The giver is the Father and the gift, the bread, is the Son. Jesus is inviting the crowd to recognize the Father at work and to believe in the Son. Like the manna in the desert, the Son has come down from heaven. And like the desert manna he gives life and sustains us.
Jesus’ dialogue with the crowd makes clear what our work is. It is the work of believing in him. Jesus extends an invitation to us to leave behind all the allurements that promise satisfaction. Jesus invites us to leave the junk food behind and come to real bread, namely himself. That is a risk. Bread is a thing, we can control it, capture it, store it, throw it out. But if we come to the bread that the Father sends, then we are coming into a relationship, we are meeting someone deeply personal. Instead of our picking up bread, we meet a hand who will lead us, sustain us and comfort us. The bread the Father offers is a living person with whom we interact, who can speak and whose word is wisdom and love and comfort and, yes, challenge. When Jesus says that our work is believing in him, he is saying that our life’s task is listening to him, responding to him, living with him, eating his bread only and loving him from the depth of our heart. It is also accepting that he loves us and that this bread is truly a sign of that love.
When we are doing that kind of believing, then we are truly alive and all other bread matters little. With such a relationship with our bread, we can leave our slavery behind and move into new life and freedom in God. We can, as Paul says, put on the new self because we have learned Christ. Indeed he is living and moving in us and we in him. Then truly we will hunger and thirst no more.
Joel Macul OSB