Some time ago, a priest friend of mine was telling me that he was just back from vacation where he had been mountain climbing with a German priest friend of his. They were somewhere in the mountains on the Austrian-German border. His friend had a map, but it was five years old and one of the paths they took turned out to be very dangerous. It was basically no longer usable. He said that for most of it there was a rope on one side for safety, although there was a sheer drop on the other side. But then they came to a place about 15 feet long where there was no rope, so they just had to cling to the side of the cliff on this extremely narrow ledge until they got past it. He told me that it was terrifying and a matter of slowly taking one step at a time, then finding proper hand grip, then another step. By the time he got to the far side he was quite exhausted and traumatized, but what interested me was that his friend, who is an experienced mountaineer, then told him to sit down and that they should eat something. When you have been through an experience like that, eating changes your metabolism and calms you down. And he said that it did just that. Within a short time he was fine again.
There is also an interesting story in the Old Testament where the prophet Elijah is on the run having just worked an extraordinary miracle, but now Queen Jezebel is out to kill him. So he escapes into the desert, but at one point he sits down feeling fed up and prays to God, ‘Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors’, or in modern English, ‘I wish I was dead; I’ve had enough’. Then he lies down and goes to sleep. But then he is woken by an angel who tells him to get up and eat, so that he will have enough strength for the journey. There he finds food beside him. The right kind of nourishment is essential.
In this Gospel passage Jesus is just after working the miracle of feeding five thousand people with the five loaves and two fish and the people come after him to see more of his wonder-worker. However, as is often the case, the miracle Jesus worked was pointing to something deeper and he says to them, ‘You are only looking for me because you got free food, but you didn’t see the “sign.” What ‘sign’? What was he talking about? And then he says, ‘Don’t be worrying about temporary food, but look for the food that endures forever.’ The miracle of multiplying the loaves, was a sign of something much deeper. Jesus then begins to teach them that there is another kind of food that we need for our whole life; not just material food that you eat, but food which brings meaning/purpose/direction. And then He tells them that He is this food that lasts forever, and the kind of food we need for the journey which is our whole life. Jesus is the one who gives us strength and meaning to help us keep going. He is the one who makes sense of what our whole life is about. If you don’t have the right kind of meaning or purpose for being here, then it is very hard to keep going especially when things don’t make sense, as they so often don’t.
In the second reading (Ephesians 4:17, 20-24) St. Paul says, ‘Don’t live the kind of aimless life that Pagans live.’ That is exactly what can happen to us if we lose sight of our faith, or get too caught up in the world and worldly worries. We forget what the real purpose of our life is about. You see this happening all the time, especially when the economic boom was here. Many people got completely carried away with money and forgot themselves. When times are harder it’s a lot easier for us to focus on what is really important.
God is showing us that to have the right kind of strength for the journey, we need the right kind of food, and Jesus is this food. ‘I am the bread of life’. That is why Jesus gives himself to us in the Eucharist and speaks to us through his word, so that we have all the nourishment that we need for the journey. If we know what our life is about, it is much easier to keep going even if we are struggling physically. That is why prayer is so important, so that we are continually connected to that source of food that gives us the deepest strength we need.
Now I know that there are also real worries such as how am I going to provide for my family when I have no work. But what God is telling us is that if we focus on him first we will find that He will look after all of these needs as well. Jesus must be at the center, everything else comes second.
I am the bread of life.
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry;
Whoever believes in me will never thirst.