What does it mean to be a human being?  What are we really?

The answer our children are taught in school is that we are just animals, the result of a long process of accidents in which an amoeba became a fish, became a lizard, became a monkey, became us.  So all we are is a material body, a fluke of the universe, a “selfish gene,” and when we die, that’s it.

Of course, virtually no one can or does live consistently with this “materialist” view of human beings.  Even radical atheists like Richard Dawkins get “mad” at Christians for the supposed “wrong” things they do.  But getting “mad” and moral concepts like “right” and “wrong” make no sense if we are simply material beings, biological robots.

Jesus Christ, and before him all the prophets of Israel, emphatically renounced the view that all we are is animals.  The readings for this Sunday point relentlessly to the fact that we are something more: spiritual beings, personal beings, made for communion with God and eternal life.
We are in a stretch of the Church calendar when the Lectionary takes a leisurely stroll, week after week for five weeks, through St. John’s account of the Feeding of the 5,000 (John 6).  Each week, the next section of John 6 is read, and paired with different Old Testament type of the Eucharist in the first reading.

1.  The first reading this week is Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15:

The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.
The Israelites said to them,
“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!”

Then the LORD said to Moses,
“I will now rain down bread from heaven for you.
Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion;
thus will I test them,
to see whether they follow my instructions or not.

“I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites.
Tell them: In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh,
and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread,
so that you may know that I, the LORD, am your God.”

In the evening quail came up and covered the camp.
In the morning a dew lay all about the camp,
and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert
were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.
On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?”
for they did not know what it was.
But Moses told them,
“This is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”

In this story, the Israelites have already gone through the experience of the Ten Plagues, the Passover, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and are now journeying through the desert to Sinai.  One would expect that after witnessing all those miracles, they would have had a greater trust in God.  On the other hand, anyone who’s worked with a lot of people—say in healthcare, education, or church ministry—will probably agree that the Israelites’ behavior is typical human nature.

In Exodus 4:22, even before Israel left Egypt, God declared that “Israel is my firstborn son.”  The category of “firstborn son” is a concept that goes back to Adam, the original firstborn son of God.  Israel is corporately a “New Adam.”  Just as Adam was tested in Eden concerning his fidelity in a matter of eating, so Israel is now tested in the desert concerning an issue of food.  God told Adam to eat from all the trees of the garden but one; he disobeyed.  In Exodus 16:19-29, God tells the Israelites not to keep the manna overnight, or try to gather it on the Sabbath; they disobey.

Actually, faithfulness to God in matters of food is a theme that shows up all throughout Scripture.  In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Actually, if we had time to analyze that phrase in Greek, we would discover that the concept of “daily bread” is tied both to the manna in the desert (which came every day) and to the Eucharist (offered to us daily).  Why is it so important to honor God in the way we eat?  Perhaps because we are so dependent on food, and therefore trusting God in the area of food is a very direct, personal sign of faith.

The Israelites do not know what the “manna” is when they first see it.  They say in Hebrew, “Man-hu?”, literally “What is it?”  From this query the heavenly bread gets its name: in Hebrew, “man,” in the English translation tradition, “manna.”  There is a spiritual sense to their lack of recognition: they don’t know or recognize the bread from heaven when they see it.  Presented with their sustenance, their salvation, their nourishment, they are non-comprehending: “Huh?  What is it?”  A similar dynamic will unfold in the Gospel reading.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54:

R. (24b) The Lord gave them bread from heaven.
What we have heard and know,
and what our fathers have declared to us,
We will declare to the generation to come
the glorious deeds of the LORD and his strength
and the wonders that he wrought.
R. The Lord gave them bread from heaven.
He commanded the skies above
and opened the doors of heaven;
he rained manna upon them for food
and gave them heavenly bread.
R. The Lord gave them bread from heaven.
Man ate the bread of angels,
food he sent them in abundance.
And he brought them to his holy land,
to the mountains his right hand had won.
R. The Lord gave them bread from heaven.

Psalm 78 is one of a handful of psalms (see also 105 & 106) that provide a review of salvation history.  Psalm 78 reviews the events from the Exodus up to the reign of David.  The portion of the Psalm we sing in Mass this Lord’s Day covers the wanderings in the wilderness, and the provision of the manna.  The mass selection ends with v. 54, which speaks of God bring Israel to “the mountain” his right hand had one (the Lectionary translation incorrectly has the plural “mountains”).  This “mountain” is Mt. Zion, the site of the temple.  God’s intention throughout the whole Exodus, indeed throughout all Israel’s history, is to gather them to a place where they will worship him.  The Promised Land, and especially Jerusalem/Mt. Zion, was a sanctuary, a place where worship was possible.  We are still on a journey toward worship in the Heavenly Jerusalem: the direct presence of God, the “Beatific Vision” or “Blessed Sight [of God]”.  As we make that earthly journey, the Eucharist is the heavenly food that sustains us on the way and gives us a taste in advance of what awaits us.

3.  Our second reading is St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 4:17, 20-24: 

Brothers and sisters:

I declare and testify in the Lord

that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,
in the futility of their minds;
that is not how you learned Christ,
assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him,
as truth is in Jesus,
that you should put away the old self of your former way of life,
corrupted through deceitful desires,
and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
and put on the new self,
created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

What does St. Paul mean by “no longer living as the Gentiles do” and “putting away the old self of your former life”?  In another epistle, Paul gives a fuller description of this way of life:

18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.  20 But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,  21 who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:18-21)

By saying “their god is the belly” and their “minds [are] set on earthly things,” Paul is describing people who view their lives only in physical terms and live with the goal of gaining physical pleasure and minimizing physical pain.  Human beings have always been tempted to live in this reduced way, and it is the typical lifestyle in our current culture, supported by the pseudo-science taught in our schools that claims to have shown we are purely material animals, and thus all higher truths or higher aspirations are at best noble illusions or at worst wicked lies.

The Israelites in the wilderness complained, because they were living with this mindset.  Their primary concern was filling their belly at the moment.  Desire to satisfy physical hunger led them to disregard the lessons they should have learned from all the miracles they had witnessed.  It hadn’t sunk in that God had power over physical reality, and therefore material limitations did not define them nor their relationship to God.

St. Paul’s words still call us today to “put off our old self” in which our “god is our belly.”  A very practical way to do that is to revive the ancient Christian practice of fasting, so neglected in contemporary Christian culture.  Going without food for a day, once a week, will not kill us: in fact, for most of us it would be healthy and extend our lives.  Moreover, the practice of fasting helps us become detached from physical pleasure and physical desires, and more aware of the reality that we are spiritual beings, made ultimately for supernatural existence, not a merely material one.  Besides, Jesus said their are demons that only come out by “prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29, see textual variant), and we see so many at work in our culture that it is really necessary to step up our level of spiritual combat against them.

4. The Gospel is John 6:24-35:

When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there,
they themselves got into boats
and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
And when they found him across the sea they said to him,
“Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered them and said,
“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.
For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”
So they said to him,
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
So they said to him,
“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.?
So Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”

So they said to him,
“Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

There are so many parallels between Jesus’ interactions with the crowd and God’s dealings with the Israelites in the desert.  Just as the Israelites in the desert were thinking with their stomachs, so is the crowd in John 6: “You are looking for me because you ate the loaves and were satisfied.”  Jesus calls the crowd to aspire to something higher than physical satisfaction: “Don’t work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life.”

The “work of God” is to “believe in the One he sent.”  So the crowd asks Jesus to perform a sign so that they can believe.  One wants to ask, “Hey guys, didn’t you see the sign he performed yesterday?  Didn’t you eat the miraculous loaves yourselves?  Does he have to repeat the miracle every single day in order for you to believe?”  Apparently so.

And we are reminded of the Israelites in the desert, who had seen so many signs and miracles: the ten plagues, the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, and yet they still grumbled and doubted.  Do we, too, quickly forget God’s miracles, gifts, and work in our lives, falling back into distrust?

Jesus speaks to the crowd about the “true bread from heaven”; they ask for this bread “always,” so Jesus reveals himself: “I am the bread of life.”

However, if we continue reading John 6—as we will next week—we find out that, although Jesus speaks clearly, the crowds are befuddled by what he says and who he is.  If the Israelites in the desert said, “What is this?”, the crowds in John 6 ask, “Who is this?”  In both cases, the people are face to face with divine nourishment, and are non-comprehending.

Are we in that same spot?  Do we find ourselves asking, “But I’m a Christian and I still get hungry and thirsty, so what does Jesus mean?”  Are we befuddled even though our salvation is staring us in the face?  Or can we take a step of faith and embrace this truth:

I am not a merely material being.
I have an immortal soul.
My true hunger is for God, to be in his presence “always.”
Jesus can satisfy that hunger forever.

When we come forward to receive the Eucharist this Sunday, let’s say a quiet prayer that Jesus would help us recognize him for who he really is, as we take his Body into ours.

Originally posted: The Sacred Page