TUESDAY HOMILY: The Daily Gift of the True Manna from Heaven
In the Year of Faith, every believer is called to examine whether Jesus in the Eucharist is the source and the summit of his or her life.
Since the Eucharist is the source and the summit of the Christian life, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, if we're truly living a Catholic life, Jesus in the Eucharist ought to be the source and the summit, the alpha and the omega, of our existence. He should be the starting point from which everything in our life flows and the goal toward which everything in our life goes.
Yesterday, Jesus told those who followed him from Bethsaida to Capernaum across the upper lip of the Sea of Galilee that they were seeking him not because of faith or love generated by the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, 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 said 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 adult lives working in to put food on the table, to nourish ourselves and our families. We all know how important that is, but Jesus is saying that as hard as we work to fulfill that duty of love, we must work much harder for the food that he will give us, the food of eternal life.
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, sometimes working two or three jobs 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 is giving us during these days of Easter when we focus on John 6: Jesus himself is that perdurable provision, in the miracle of the Eucharist.
But even though our heads known the answer, many of us still do not structure our lives by faith in accordance with 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 Easter Season, because so few of us have put these words into action - and he wants to help us to do so
The question for us is: How can we act concretely on Jesus' words and make the Eucharist our priority?
He tells us today in his words about the true manna.
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).
The 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
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 to stop complaining 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!"
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.
It was easy, in a sense, for the Creator of the world to rain down manna from above to feed the Israelites in the desert. It didn't "cost" much. For us to receive the true manna as our spiritual food and drink, however, meant Jesus' torturous suffering, brutal crucifixion, and resurrection. That's the "price" of the true manna, a cost paid entirely by Christ so that we could receive it freely. That's also the reality of this true manna. If others were to ask, like the Jews, "What is it?," we respond in faith, "It is the Lord!"
This truth needs to have consequences in our lives as believers and especially in the way we come to and celebrate the Mass.
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 done exactly that, 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.
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.
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.
Of 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.
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.
I make an exception to talk about myself today in order to illustrate that when I discuss 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 for the last 25 years.
There's such a quantum leap in the practice of the faith that occurs when a Catholic starts to come to daily Mass and says 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 centered on Christ in the Eucharist as the source and summit of our existence and we start to experience the gifts he will give us in abundance if only we come to receive him.
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?"
The last point concerns the Eucharist and heaven. Jesus tells us,"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, God the Father would want to come to receive his Son because we love him rather than because we're trying to do it for the eternal pension plan.
For those of us who think more naturally in terms of "cost/benefit analysis," however, 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.
Jesus has responded to our plea to "give us this bread always." The Father has generously answered our prayer to give us each day our super-substantial bread.
Now it's time for each of us to out and receive that true manna that comes down from heaven every day we can.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, MA and national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA. His homilies and articles are found on catholicpreaching.com.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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