The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this desert to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
"I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.'
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the desert was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat."
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./)
He commanded the skies above
and opened the doors of heaven;
he rained manna upon them for food
and gave them heavenly bread. (R./)
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./)
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?"
Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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. or it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"
Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell 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." 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 be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
One of the masterpieces of fiction was the satire Don Quixote by the Spanish writer Cervantes. It tells how the absurdly chivalrous hero set out to perform deeds of heroism to win the admiration of all the Spanish ladies. Quixote was so open to adventure that he decided to go wherever his horse Rosinante would lead him. But the horse, once given free rein, naturally returned to the place it knew best, its own stable. We might find ourselves going the same way, doing the same thing, returning to the same haunts again and again, drifting aimlessly, or lured on by the novelty of sensationalism, or even carried away by the latest fashion in religion.
St Paul declares that aimless living will lead us exactly nowhere. "I urge you in the name of the Lord," he says, "not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live." In paganism, according to Paul, lack of direction led to deep moral lapses and indecency of every kind, or spiritual collapse. But he says. "if we live by the truth and in love, we shall grow in all ways into Christ, who is the head by whom the whole body is fitted and joined together, until it has built itself up, in love" (4:15f). In other words, Christ must be felt as a living influence in the lives of all his true followers.
The help of divine grace is always there for the asking. "Work for your salvation in fear and trembling," the New Testament urges us, and then goes on, "It is God who gives you both the will and the ability to act, and so achieve his own purpose" (Phil 2:12f). We could not even begin to seek God, if he had not already found us.
On the other hand, if people are wrapped up only with trivial things and selfish pleasure-seeking, their understanding will be darkened, and, worse still, their hearts become insensitive to real values. This lapsing from our ideals will be gradual and barely noticeable, and nobody becomes decadent all at once. When people first become aware in their conscience that they are falling into bad habits, they may regard it with some regret. But if they ignore conscience and continue their merry way, inevitably the unused conscience falls asleep, and they can sin without any feeling of guilt. At that stage they are incapable of discerning right from wrong.
The people gathered around Jesus along the lakeshore were concerned only with their need of food and drink. They were so enthusiastic about his multiplying the loaves that they wanted to make Jesus their king. They were blind to the spiritual significance of the miracle, and the message he wanted to teach through it. "Do not work for food that cannot last," he warned, "but for food that lasts to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering."
What about ourselves? If we are willing to follow Jesus, but only on our own terms, we can be like the careless crowd. If we feel he has let us down, we may turn away from him. This is not the response that draws grace into our lives. We must seek our Lord for himself, and not for what we can get from him. The bread from heaven for us is the Eucharist, and the proper way to receive its blessing is to open up to God's love, given to us in Jesus. Unlike those who abandoned Jesus when no more bread was forthcoming, we must persevere as his faithful followers.
It appears that many things produced today are not made to last. Take our modern buildings for example. In Dublin we live in a city with some beautiful buildings that are centuries old. The old house of Parliament, now the Bank of Ireland, in College Green comes to mind; it is almost three hundred years old now. I wonder how many of the building that have gone up in recent years in the city will still be there in three hundred years time. Much of what we buy on a smaller scale, like furniture for our homes, does not seem to last very long either. The clothes that we wear have a shorter life span compared to a generation or two ago. We live in a throwaway culture, even if some of what made today will last into the future. There are probably some books of our own time will have an enduring value too. Some movies and plays that are presently being made will be watched and enjoyed for generations to come. We always retain the capacity to create something of enduring value, that has the capacity to engage people not just in the present but into the future. They last because their value is great.
On our journey through life we tend to seek out what might be of lasting value because we sense that it can enrich us and make us better human beings. Having found something of real value we often return to it, whether it is a book, a poem, a piece of music, a painting or a building. We know from experience that what we really value are not so much objects or things but people. A good friend is worth so much more to us than a good book, or a good piece of music, or a good painting. There is nothing more valuable to parents than their children. For those who are in love, their treasure is the beloved. Everything else is on a much lesser scale of value. We want the people we value to last forever, which is why the death or the loss of a loved one is such a devastating experience.
In today's gospel the crowds of people whom Jesus fed in the wilderness come back, looking for him, wanting more of this bread he had provided. Jesus takes the opportunity to point them towards more enduring. His advice is, 'do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life.' The horizon of Jesus is not the mere horizon of this world but that of eternity. When he speaks of what truly lasts he means what it is that lasts into eternity. For Jesus what is of lasting value is not just what is remembered for generations into the future, but what will continue to have value in eternity. It is hard to keep that horizon of eternity before us, especially in these times when our universe seems so all absorbing. Yet the horizon of Jesus is the horizon of eternity. Certainly he takes this earthly life very seriously; he has invested himself in showing us how to live in this life, by his teaching, his way of relating to others. He gave himself over to meeting the basic needs of those he met. He healed the sick; he comforted the bereaved; the fed the hungry; he befriended the lonely. He told us to do the same and declared that what we do for others we do for him. Yet, all the time the backdrop was an eternal horizon. In living in this way, we are preparing ourselves to live forever. Those who live by the values of the kingdom of God will inherit the kingdom of God.
Jesus spoke of himself as the way. He is the way to live in this life; he shows us how to life well. Thereby, he is also the way to eternal life; those who follow in his way will live forever. Jesus is concerned about what endures not just into successive generations but what endures into eternity. He understood that we have been created by God to live forever and he came to show us how to attain that eternal life and to empower us to attain it. That is why he speaks of himself in the gospel as the bread of life. He endures into eternity and those who receive him in faith and walk in his way will also endure into eternity. If we come to him and stay with him our deepest hungers and thirsts will be satisfied in this life and more fully in the next. When we think about what endures, we are to think first of Jesus. He is the gateway to enduring life, for ourselves and for all we love and value.
One of the masterpieces of fiction is the satirical story of Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. It tells how the absurdly idealistic hero, followed by his squire Sancho Panza, set out to find adventure, do deeds of chivalrous bravery and win the admiration of everybody. He had such an open mind in this quest that he decided to go wherever his horse Rosinante would lead him. But the horse, finding itself given free rein, naturally returned to the place it knew best, its own stable. Too often perhaps, we humans find ourselves going the same way, doing the same thing, returning to the same sinful habits again and again, sometimes also drifting aimlessly, sometimes lured on by the novelty of sensationalism, sometimes a prey to the enticements of others, or carried away by the latest fashion in religion.
St Paul, in today's text, is quite adamant in his condemnation of that kind of haphazard behaviour. "I want to urge you in the name of the Lord," he says, "not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live." The inner life of pagans was one in which human weakness led to countless moral failures, and the pursuit of a career of indecency of every kind, often culminating in permanent spiritual collapse. However, "if we live by the truth and in love, we shall grow in all ways into Christ, who is the head by whom the whole body is fitted and joined together, until it has built itself up, in love" (4:15f). In other words, Christ must be seen before the whole world to be a living influence in the lives of all his true followers.
On the other hand, if people engage only in immoral things, their mind will be darkened, and worse, their hearts will be petrified, that is to say they become like stone. This lapsing into sin may be more discernible to others than to the person himself or herself. There is a certain mystery attached to sin, but we can say for certain that nobody becomes a sinner all at once. When people first become aware by the light of their conscience that they have fallen into sin, they may regard with horror and regret the action which led to it. But if they ignore it continue in sinful ways, there will come a time when they will lose all sense of wrongdoing, when they lose all feeling of guilt or shame. At that stage conscience is petrified, a dead thing incapable of discerning right from wrong.
In the gospel, the people who followed Jesus along the shore of the lake were concerned solely with satisfying their hunger. They were so enthusiastic about this sudden abundance of food he provided that they decided to ensure its continuation and so set out to make Jesus their king. They were blind to the spiritual meaning of the miracle, and the message Jesus drew from it. "Do not work for food that cannot last," he warned, "but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you."
With us too, it can happen that we are willing to follow Christ - even to seek him out with a certain kind of zeal - but on our own conditions, namely, that he solve our immediate problems and grant our requests. If we feel he has let us down, we may even contemplate turning our backs on him. But never on such conditions will he draw near to us. We must seek him for himself, and not for what we can get from him. The bread from heaven that Jesus promised is the Blessed Eucharist, and for its proper reception we need to open ourselves to God's love in our lives. It demands that we show acceptance of others as well. Unlike those who abandoned Jesus when no more food was on offer, we must keep on trying to be his faithful followers.
"Work for your salvation in fear and trembling," St Paul urges us, and then goes on to reassure us, "It is God who gives you both the will and the ability to act, to achieve his own purpose" (Phil 2:12f). It is a great encouragement to us that we could not even begin to seek God, if he had not already found us.