Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
19th Sunday of OT, Year B
August 13, 2006
1Kings 19:4-8; Eph 4:30-5:2; Jn 6:41-51
1) Today we enter together into the third week of Jesus’ five-week course on the mystery of his body and blood in the Eucharist, which Jesus taught for the first time in the Synagogue of Capernaum and renews for us live every third Summer. Two weeks ago we had the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, which was a foreshadowing of the multiplication of the meal of the Last Supper throughout every land and time in order to feed the spiritually infamished human race. Last week, the Feast of the Transfiguration took precedence over the second part of Jesus’ Eucharistic instruction, which we have to cover briefly in order to grasp the foundation of what Jesus tells us today in the third.
2) After the crowds, wowed by the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish, followed him along the shore, Jesus told them that they were following him not because of faith or love generated by the miracle, but because they had eaten “their fill of the loaves.” Jesus’ point was that many times people follow him not because they love him, or believe that he is the way leading to eternal life, but to obtain some favor, divine handout, or free meal. He says to them and to us, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” So many of us spend most of our lives working in to put food on the table, to nourish ourselves and our families. Jesus tells us that that, however important, cannot be our priority. We must work much harder for the food that he will give us, the food of eternal life.
3) What is that food that God puts on the table? What is that nourishment of eternal life? If we spend forty hours a week or more to put perishables on our table, what is the imperishable nutrition for which Jesus tells us we should labor even more strenuously? I think all of us, unlike his original listeners, already know the answer to those queries, which Jesus gives us throughout this five-week course: Jesus is that perdurable provision, in the miracle of the Eucharist. But even though our heads know the answer, many of us still do not live the answer. Many of us, just like the first century Jews, spend more of our time hungering and working for hamburgers and french fries, for pancakes and sausages, for salads and sweets, than we do for his flesh and blood. That’s why Jesus repeats this Eucharistic course for us every three years, because so few of us have put these words into action.
4) The question for us is: how can we act concretely on Jesus’ words and make the Eucharist our priority? I think he tells us in parts two and three of the course in his words about the manna. In what would have been last week’s Gospel, the crowds asked Jesus for a sign to authenticate his words. Apparently the multiplication of five loaves and two fish to feed a crowd of at least 25,000 people was not enough. Likely influenced by what he had said about the “bread that the Son of Man will give you,” they challenged: “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Can you top that?
5) Most of us, I think, remember the story of the manna. The Jews were grumbling in the desert, fearful that they would starve to death. So Moses brought their complaints and pleas to God, and God replied by saying, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day” (Exod 16:4). And every morning for forty years, they awoke to find a miraculous edible dew that looked like coriander seed, with the white like gum resin, tasting like wafers made with honey (Num 11:7; Exod 16:31). They Israelites had no idea what it was, and hence called it “manna,” which literally means, “What is it?” Moses told them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” and instructed them to gather as much of it as each one needed for a day. If they tried to save some for the following day, it would become foul and worm-infested. As they prepared for the Sabbath, they could gather twice as much and then alone would last two days. This is how they survived in the desert for forty years, until they reached the promised land
6) Jesus, in his response to his testers, said that he is the REAL MANNA, foreshadowed by miracle of the desert: “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who 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.” After they asked, “Sir, give us this bread always,” Jesus responded by saying the startling words that he is that life-giving bread come down from heaven that removes all hunger and thirst: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” After the crowd in today’s Gospel grumbled asking how a carpenter from Nazareth could say he was the bread come down from heaven, Jesus told them not to complain and that if they were open to the Father’s words authenticated by Jesus’ works, they would be drawn to him in faith and experience his eternal risen life. Then he told them how he would give them life everlasting: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh!”
7) None of these words of Jesus would fully make sense until exactly a year later when, during the Last Supper, Jesus would take bread and wine, miraculously change their substance into his body and blood while maintaining their appearances, and then turn to his apostles and say, “Take and eat; this is my body” and “Take, drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant” (Mt 26:25-28 ). That body and blood, which he would give to the apostles in holy communion during the Last Supper, he would give for the world on the Cross the following afternoon. We will have a chance to enter more deeply into the theological truth about Christ’s real presence in the next two weeks. What I want to do now, though, is to stop to focus on something very practical: how we labor for this food of eternal life which the Son of man gives us, this true heavenly manna, which if eaten, will lead us to heaven. To do that, we need to return to the manna.
8 ) I’ve always been struck that God in his wisdom made the Israelites go to get the manna every morning except the Sabbath (so that they wouldn’t have to work). Even on the Sabbath, however, they would eat the second daily portion of manna that they had gotten the day before. God said he made them do this every day in order to “test them,” to see whether or not they would follow his instruction and be faithful (Exod 16:4). Throughout their entire time in the desert until they entered the promised land, they received this heavenly gift through this daily work and daily sustenance. In a similar way, Jesus taught us to pray in the Our Father, not, “give us today all the bread we’re going to need this week” or “give us now all we’ll ever need,” but “give us this day our daily bread,” because he wanted us to recognize that every day God wants to grant that prayer. The early saints of the Church commented at length about the Greek word we translate as “daily” — epi-ousios — which literally means “super-substantial.” They said it referred less to the material bread that we need to consume for physical survival, but to the bread that goes beyond our substance — the Eucharist — that we need for our souls. The early saints said that Jesus was teaching them to pray that the Father would give them every day the Eucharist. In other words, when Jesus said that he was the “real manna,” the “true bread come down from heaven,” he was intending to be our daily portion of food throughout our lifetime in the desert of life, until, God-willing, we enter into the eternal promised land of heaven. In response to the request of the Jews, “Sir, give us this bread always,” Jesus has, by giving us his body and blood and making it available not just on Sunday, but every day, in the places where there is a priest who is faithful to the daily celebration of the Mass.
9) What is our response to this incredible gift of himself that the Lord gives us every day? Why do we think he does it? Do we think it’s merely to provide some superfluous “frosting on the cake” to those who are already holy, or to give sustenance to all the people he created and redeemed — especially those who he knows are not as holy as he wants them to be — because he knows they more than any need him every day? It was of course possible for a Jew in the desert to skip a day, or two or three, in going out to obtain the daily manna. But over the course of time, the person would become weaker, hungrier and more vulnerable. If God went through the effort to feed them every morning, it’s because he knew that they needed to be fed every day. It’s the same way with the Eucharist. God has desired to give us each day this “daily bread come down from heaven,” because he knows that we need to be spiritually fed each day. But how do we respond? Do we have any desire to receive him who gives of himself to us in love every day? Are we willing to rearrange our schedule in order to respond to his spiritual breakfast invitation? I’m convinced from both personal and pastoral experience that one of the real proofs of whether we recognize that the Eucharist really is Jesus, and whether we truly love the Lord, can be seen in our attitude toward daily Mass.
10) I remember well my freshman year in college when my faith in Christ in the Eucharist and the practical consequences of my love for him really matured. I had always believed that the Eucharist is Jesus, and had never missed Sunday Mass. I had attended some daily Masses over the course of the year, like when I was young and out of school and would have to accompany my mother to morning Mass, or when I was older and with my family members would attend a weekday Mass offered for a deceased loved one. But it was when I was 18 that I realized that if the Eucharist really is Jesus and if Jesus is really God of my life, then there was nothing more important that I could do over the course of a given Monday, or Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday, than to come to receive him. It was just a logical consequence of my faith in his real presence in the Eucharist and my love for him. Or course, I knew that I was under no obligation to attend daily Mass, that unlike voluntarily missing a Sunday Mass or a Mass on a holy day of obligation, there was no mortal sin involved. But I began to realize that it was either a lack of faith or love not at least to desire to receive the Lord every day. It’s not a sin for a husband not to tell his wife each day that he loves her, or to give her a kiss to express his love, but it would very likely be a manifestation of a lack of love. So I started to attend Mass each day and my life changed. I started to hunger for the Eucharist more and more each day. I started to listen much more carefully to Jesus’ voice in Sacred Scripture, which I would hear every morning. I started to put what Jesus was teaching me every day in Sacred Scripture into practice. I started desiring to pray and to unite my whole life to the Mass. And I started, paradoxically, to find much more time; I discovered that when I made the time to attend Mass each day, God blessed me with a sense of order in life that helped me to become far more productive, because my priorities were now in order with God truly in first place each day. I was no longer working for the food that perishes — for a college degree, for earthly goals — but was ordering my life around Christ in the Eucharist.
11) I seldom talk about myself in a homily because Jesus has to be the center of every homily. I make an exception today in order to illustrate that when I talk about the importance of daily Mass in the Christian life, it’s not theoretical. I have experienced the tremendous joy and spiritual fruits that come from daily Mass attendance and out of love for you I want you to experience the same. And as I look out on you today with love, with appreciation for your fidelity to the Lord, I recognize that I’m not preaching on this occasion “to the choir,” because daily Mass attendance in this parish is overall pretty low. One of my real hopes for you and for this parish is that we would all take the Lord’s sacrifice of himself in the Mass so seriously that we would each make a the sacrifices necessary to come at least once a week to daily Mass, not because we have to, but because we want to. There’s such a quantum leap in the practice of the faith that occurs when a Catholic starts to come to daily Mass and say to Jesus, “this is my body, this is my blood, this is my whole life… given for you.” So much starts to change. Our life becomes far more centered on Christ and start to experience the gifts he will give us in abundance if only we come to receive him. The reason why God created us — our supreme vocation — is to become a saint and to help others become saints, and we don’t become a saint, as St. Therese Lisieux recognized, “by halves.” We don’t become great in anything by giving only fifty percent, by doing the minimum, by fulfilling only what we “have” to do. We become great by striving to do the maximum, by trying to do the best we can, by availing ourselves of any and all opportunities that present themselves — and Christ gives us the greatest help of all in the gift of himself.
12) Jesus, in telling us to work for the food that leads to everlasting life, is instructing any of us who labor more for coffee and donuts, for steak and beer, for chips and dip, that we have to change our priorities. The question that Christ poses to each of us today is: If I work forty hours or more for the food that perishes, how much time and how hard do I labor for the Eucharist? If I eat perishable food every day — three times or more — should I not at least strive to arrange my schedule to consume every day the spiritual and eternal food that the Son of Man gives us? The question is not, “Why should I attend daily Mass?,” but “Is there anything in my life more important than receiving God’s offer of himself to me every day?”
13) The last point concerns the Eucharist and heaven. Jesus tells us that “whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” There’s no greater reward, no greater payout we could ever receive from any human activity, than this! Of course, I think that God the Father would rather have us want to come to receive his Son because we love him than because we’re trying to do it for the eternal pension plan — but, for those of us who think more naturally in terms of “cost/benefit analysis,” there’s no greater benefit we could possibly ever receive than this. There’s no greater personal investment we could make than to receive this food of everlasting life, by entering into communion with the one who is the Way to heaven. That said, I also have to add that the sacred host is not some type of mysterious magic wafer that automatically gives eternity to the consumer. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the bread of life can become the “bread of death,” for those who eat it unworthily: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. FOR THIS REASON, MANY OF YOU ARE WEAK AND ILL, AND SOME OF YOU HAVE DIED.” (1Cor 11:27-31). The Eucharist is the holiest reality in the entire world and to receive the Lord worthily, we must be in a moral communion with him. If we’ve lost that communion through mortal sin — like breaking any of the ten commandments, including the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s Day by coming to Mass — then before we receive the Eucharist, we must “judge ourselves,” and go before the same priests through whom Christ gives us his body and blood to receive from Christ his reconciliation to communion.
14) In the midst of our journey through the desert of life, the Lord send an angel to us, just like he did Elijah in the first reading, to tell us, repeatedly, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” That messenger is Christ himself who is that food for the journey. May God the Father today fill us with a real love for his Son and for ourselves, so that we may hunger to receive each day this real manna, and be strengthened to complete the journey with him through the desert of life and come at last to the eternal promised land.