“I am the Bread of Life,” said Jesus. When he uses these words he places himself within the story of Israel’s wilderness years, their escape from slavery, their time of God given gifts in the desert, gifts which feed them as they wander, seeking the promised land. The following reflection feasts on those words and offers a way in which we can digest what Jesus may mean, and what it may mean for the Eucharist.
They despair. They are at their wits' end. Homeless. Hungry. Downtrodden refugees trailing the sands of a wild place. Maddened nomads, pitching camp, and then, after a day or more maybe, they move on, hiding from the blanch of the sun. For forty years they will do this. Generations will be born into this stateless lifestyle, knowing no other way, no other life. It leaves a mark on their lives for ever, they are shaped by the desert. No wonder, at times, they despaired beyond belief. No wonder their leader is taking the flack, this hero who hits upon hard times, who tries to keep the people together, when hunger and want set in. A leader is destined to give direction, to make decisions to makes life better, and yet here they are not knowing which way to turn. Their dangerous, dramatic escape from slavery is now just a memory, tucked away in the past. Why would they feast on former glories, when their life is now so low? He’d promised them a land of their own, a paradise place where their children could flourish and know the meaning of home. They think themselves better off dead. “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 wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus 16: 3) God responds. A promise to rain down bread from heaven, enough for each day, no more, no less. They gather it, give it a name. ‘Manna.’ Like coriander seed, white, sweet, the taste of wafers soaked in honey. (Exodus 16:31) We are shaped by our past, which is our story’s beginning. We are formed by former things by all that has been. It gives a sense of identity to a person, a people. It helps us know who we are, how we have become. It helps us move on, but can so easily trap us too. The past is not for living in. Jesus takes up the story, uses this collective memory, an image of God providing for his people, fulfilling their hunger, giving them strength., enough for each day. He feeds five thousand on the mountainside, A fare made from five loaves, two fish. “I am the bread of life,” he says. Some listeners grumble, unable to stomach such talk. It makes them sick. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:48-51) This moment now becomes part of our memory, a narrative to shape and inspire us, to give us a sense of identity, a collective memory which informs the present. In an upstairs room, he gives bread as his body. Wine as his blood. They eat, They drink. They gather their past together. The great escape, the wilderness manna, the mountainside miracle, the bread, the fish, twelve baskets left over, More than enough. “Take, eat, this is my body,” he says, “given for you.” At Mass, the collective memory, is gathered up and given, again and again, more than enough, like manna, like bread from heaven, the Bread of Life, rained down, for life.