August 8, 2021
XIX Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Last Sunday, we saw the initial reactions of the people to the miracles of the loaves and fishes, as it is retold in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. The people look for Jesus, so He asks them to clarify the motivation behind this search: what are they seeking? What hunger is pushing them? And as He did with the thirst of the Samaritan woman, so now he does with them: as there is a living water, which takes away the thirst for ever (Jn 4:14), so there is also a true bread, which nourishes the hunger for eternal life.
Then it will be about understanding what this bread is, where it comes from, who gives it to us, and how we can be fed by it.
The first statement we are discussing today is the one we find in verse 49: “Your fathers ate manna in the desert and died.” The word “death”, as well as the word “life”, recurs several times in these verses, and help us to understand where the problem lies, what Jesus is talking about. Jesus speaks of the fundamental human problem, that is, of life and death.
Israel, on its journey in the desert, had a magnificent experience, that of the manna: God was responsible for the year after year nourishing of His people with a bread that appeased their hunger every day. It was not just any bread, it came from heaven and was the sign of God’s presence in the life of His people.
It was certainly a marvelous prodigy, and yet it was not enough to prevent those who ate it from dying. They ate it, yet they died. It was a bread that had a life doomed to death.
We eat to live; yet the bread we have available is a bread that does not sidestep death.
Is there also a bread that nourishes for life? A bread of eternal life? How can there be such bread?
Today’s Gospel tells us that we cannot give an answer to this question unless we allow ourselves to be drawn by the Father (Jn 6:44). To know intimately this bread is not the work of man, as we have already said many times, but is gift of God. Alone, man cannot understand the great scandal, the great paradox of this bread, what Jesus summarizes in the last verse we read today:
“The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).
What scandalizes is that in the flesh of Jesus, in His human and fragile life, the entire life of God is made bread for men, is made nourishment of a true life. The scandal is that the bread of heaven passes through the life of a man, through his flesh: there is no life of God except in the flesh of the man Jesus, who chooses to give us this flesh as nourishment, as gift. And all this just that man can finally live a life that goes beyond death. In fact, whoever eats this bread has eternal life (Jn 6:51).
This is why it is a true bread (Jn 6:32) and it is a living bread: only what is alive can nourish us with eternal life. Manna nourishes with earthly life, the one that dies; the flesh of Christ nourishes us with the life of the Father, who does not die.
To understand this, all you have to do is enter into the experience of faith, which is a matter of attraction, not of human effort: it is the reception of that work which God mysteriously accomplishes in men. In all men, because all will be drawn by God, all will be taught by Him (Jn 6:45), no one excluded. Attraction is not compulsion: no one is forced to eat this bread. Only those who care for their hunger eat it, those who accept to receive a gift from above, those who are not satisfied, who continue looking. When this does not happen, the alternative is grumbling (Jn 6:41.43), just as the Israelites do when confronted by the affirmation with which Jesus proclaims Himself the true bread from heaven.
They have the bread of life in front of them, but they do not allow themselves to be attracted because they have stopped looking, because they do not accept to be amazed. Grumbling is the mantra that accompanies Israel in the desert, when they do not remember that God provides and when He lets fear of death prevail. And it is man’s attempt to understand without listening, to tilt what is true to what one sees; it is resistance to the attraction of the Father.
Everyone, therefore, will be attracted; and those who allow themselves to be attracted, eat, and live