A Reflection for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B).
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15 – Ephesians 4:17, 20-24 – John 6:24-35.
Dear brothers and sisters, having to endure protracted hunger pangs can be so stressful, can’t it? Hunger affects people in several ways. Being deprived of proper nourishment, even for a short time, adversely affects the mind as well as the body, distorts perceptions and interferes with thought processes. In the long term, worrying about where and how the next meal is coming from can lead to mental health problems including anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. Being hungry and empty physically, mentally and spiritually can cause people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. In the word of God today, I see various manifestations of hunger and their means of satisfaction being played out.
In the 1st reading, the people of Israel were enduring physical hunger. What did they do? They made a fuss! They protested. Loudly. Enough was enough. Their physical and mental suffering was so bad that it drove them to articulate their anger. The empty stomachs, and the disturbing prospect of death from starvation in the middle of nowhere, drove the people to turn on to their leader. Moses was a fine leader in both earthly and spiritual terms, and he sought the solution from God. The outcome was the satisfaction of the people’s hunger through the action of God’s grace. God responded with extraordinary generosity, as He always does, and the people were gifted with guaranteed daily supplies of bread and meat.
In the Gospel reading, the people came straight back to Jesus on the day after He had fed the 5000. Jesus perceived that they had come to Him merely to have their bodily hunger satisfied. Even after a slap-up meal, it’s not long before we feel hungry again. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pointed out that The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favours, it always wants more tomorrow. Isn’t that why the people came back to Jesus, to be fed and have their tummies filled? We can speculate that they might even have turned up armed with bread and fish for Him to repeat the miracle. Instead, Jesus focused their attention on food that matters far more than anything to be found on a menu. The food He was talking about carries a cast-iron guarantee to satisfy everybody’s hunger, if only they will accept it. The food He was talking about is the bread that satisfies even gnawing hunger, the bread which is given not by man but by God the Father, the bread which everyone is seeking in their different ways, the Bread that is Jesus Himself. When Jesus tells the people, I AM the Bread of life He is telling them that He is God. Our hunger cannot be completely satisfied unless we know Jesus.
Jesus diverted the focus of attention away from bread and towards Himself. He was saying ‘don’t look over there at ordinary bread, look over here at Real Bread, here I AM’. We have to change direction, to undergo a spiritual revolution. (That’s why I chose ‘spiritual revolution’ as the theme of this Reflection.) Now, reflect on these words of St Paul in the 2nd reading: your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution (v.23). Why? So that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way (v.24). We, like the people who came to Jesus to be fed, are called to a spiritual revolution, to a spiritual protest, because while we have been feeding the body and doing everything possible to maintain our physical comfort and wellbeing, the spirit has been starved, left hungry and emaciated. The Psalmist says, As a deer yearns for running streams, so my soul yearns for you, O God. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of life. When shall I enter and see the face of God? (Ps 42:1f). This is the nub of what the spiritual revolution is all about: looking beyond our hunger for earthly satisfaction and bodily comfort towards the satisfaction of the longing of our spirit and soul for God. Again, why? Because these are the parts of us that remain eternal after our earthly sojourn is over.
Ecce Panis: When the people of Israel asked Moses, what is that? (v.15), He told them, That is the bread the Lord gives you to eat. They might have seen manna already on the land (as fruit of the earth), and they might have taken it and moulded it into a form of food (as work of human hands), but the bottom line is that it was given to them by God for sustenance. This is paralleled in the prayer said by the priest when he is preparing the offerings of bread and wine for consecration: Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness, we have received the bread/wine we offer you. Fruit of the earth/vine and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life / our spiritual drink. That bread, that manna in the desert, was a prefiguration of the Bread which Jesus spoke of in the Gospel reading, the true Bread which the Father will give, which is Himself – the Lord Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.
There is no shame in being hungry. By extension, there is no shame in wanting God to satisfy your inner being. When you protest to Him about your hunger and your emptiness inside, let your desire be for spiritual fulfilment. As the people of Israel demanded food from Moses, may I encourage you continually to request (minus the anger, moaning and groaning, of course!) the satisfaction of your soul whenever you need the Sacraments from your priests. We may not be fully aware of just how hungry you are, and as we don’t read minds, please don’t hesitate to tell us. When you do, it helps us to understand your personal needs and enables us to be more helpful to you. Inasmuch as priests are there to help you along your spiritual journey, the onus is on you to make the first move, to speak up about the nature of your hunger. If you don’t, and if you go on suffering in silence, the danger is that you may die spiritually. We all need to involve ourselves in a spiritual revolution.
And finally, let us give ourselves permission to accept divine guidance. Just as Jesus purposefully guided people away from looking to ordinary bread to satisfy their hunger, when what they needed to fill their emptiness was the Bread of God, we should pay attention when we are guided by our priests (or indeed anybody whom the Lord is using at any one moment to point us in the right direction) to understand how our hunger for God can be genuinely satisfied. Let me then encourage you to focus your concentration on discerning God speaking to you through the action, ministry and preaching of the priest at each Holy Mass, and listening hard to what He has to say specifically to you whenever the word of God is being preached. Give yourself permission to be guided by the grace of God the Father through the working of God the Holy Spirit in the Holy Eucharist instituted by God the Son who gifts us Himself. Amen. God bless you.