What does it mean to be a human being? What are we, really?
The answer our children are taught in school is that we are just animals, the result of a long process of accidents in which an amoeba became a fish, became a lizard, became a monkey, became us. So, all we are is a material body, a fluke of the universe, a “selfish gene,” and when we die, that’s it.
Of course, virtually no one can or does live consistently with this “materialist” view of human beings. Even radical atheists like Richard Dawkins get “mad” at Christians for the supposed “wrong” things they do. But getting “mad’ and moral concepts like “right” and “wrong” make no sense if we are simply material beings, biological robots.
Jesus Christ, and before him all the prophets of Israel, emphatically renounced the view that all we are is animals. The readings for this Sunday point relentlessly to the fact that we are something more: spiritual beings, personal beings, made for communion with God and eternal life.
We are in a stretch of the Church calendar when the Lectionary takes a leisurely stroll, week after week for five weeks, through St. John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (John 6). Each week, the next section of John 6 is read and paired with different Old Testament type of the Eucharist in the First Reading.
Since my full commentaries on the Sunday Readings are now available in print here, I’ll only post my comments on this Sunday’s First Reading in what follows.
First Reading| Exodus 16:2–4, 12–15
The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of famine!”
Then the Lord said to Moses: I am going to rain down bread from heaven for you. Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion; thus will I test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not.
I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them: In the evening twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will have your fill of bread, and then you will know that I, the Lord, am your God.
In the evening, quail came up and covered the camp. In the morning there was a layer of dew all about the camp, and when the layer of dew evaporated, fine flakes were on the surface of the wilderness, fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground. On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?” for they did not know what it was. But Moses told them, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.“
In this story, the Israelites have already gone through the experience of the Ten Plagues, the Passover, and the Crossing of the Red Sea, and are now journeying through the desert to Sinai. One would expect that after witnessing all those miracles, they would have had a greater trust in God. On the other hand, anyone who’s worked with a lot of people—say in healthcare, education, or church ministry—will probably agree that the Israelites’ behavior is typical human nature.
In Exodus 4:22, even before Israel left Egypt, God declared that “Israel is my son, my firstborn.” The category of “firstborn son” is a concept that goes back to Adam, the original firstborn son of God. Israel is corporately a “New Adam.” Just as Adam was tested in Eden concerning his fidelity in a matter of eating, so Israel is now tested in the desert concerning an issue of food. God told Adam to eat from all the trees of the garden but one; he disobeyed. In Exodus 16:19–29, God tells the Israelites not to keep the manna overnight or try to gather it on the Sabbath; they disobey.
Actually, faithfulness to God in matters of food is a theme that shows up all throughout Scripture. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Actually, if we had time to analyze that phrase in Greek, we would discover that the concept of “daily bread” is tied both to the manna in the desert (which came every day) and to the Eucharist (offered to us daily). Why is it so important to honor God in the way we eat? Perhaps because we are so dependent on food, and therefore trusting God in the area of food is a very direct, personal sign of faith.
The Israelites do not know what the “manna” is when they first see it. They say in Hebrew, “Man-hu?” literally “What is it?” From this query the heavenly bread gets its name: in Hebrew, “man,” in the English translation tradition, “manna.” There is a spiritual sense to their lack of recognition: they don’t know or recognize the bread from heaven when they see it. Presented with their sustenance, their salvation, their nourishment, they are uncomprehending: “Huh? What is it?” A similar dynamic will unfold in the Gospel reading.
The Eucharist is for us this mysterious supernatural bread. What is this, that looks like bread but is the Body of the Son of God? We, too, can have a kind of “Eucharistic amazement,” to borrow St. John Paul II’s term, as we wonder that the incomprehensible gift of Christ’s Eucharistic presence. No scientific or philosophical investigation can fully define “what it is.” We humble our intellect and simply adore the mystery. As Thomas Aquinas said:
Visus, tactus, gustus
In te fallitur
Sed auditu solo
Credo quidquid dixit
Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius
Sight, touch, and taste
Are lacking in you
But by hearing alone
All is believed
I believe whatever
The Son of God says
Nothing can be truer than the Word of Truth