Today’s Gospel continues the reflection on the story we had two weeks ago, when Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus announced “I am the bread of life”, which made a clear connection between the miracle in the wilderness with the offer to us of the bread of life. The key message of today’s Gospel is that the bread of life opens the door to eternal life. Let’s think about what that means.
Think about the memorable meals that you have enjoyed.
On Thursday, I was invited out to lunch. My friend has reproductions of two paintings by Brueghel on her wall, and these paintings mean a lot to her and she has researched and studied them. One of them shows a number of fruit and vegetables, which were new and exotic when Brueghel painted them. My friend gave us a meal that used the ingredients depicted in the picture, so we had tiny tarts of humous and raspberries or peas, lemon chicken, risotto of artichoke and white asparagus, mangetout peas and a variety of tomatoes, gouda cheese and pumpernickel, with cherry tarts to finish. It was a very memorable meal – the food was exquisite.
Meals can be memorable in other ways. Sometimes it’s the setting, the place that makes the occasion. My husband Sheridan and I were once invited to a dinner of Irish historians at the Irish embassy in London. I don’t remember what we ate, but they were very generous with the wine and there were a lot of speeches at the end.
And meals can be memorable because of the people who are there. Which is probably why I have a clear memory of lots of Christmas dinners with the family.
You will have your own memorable meals.
And that meal in the wilderness two thousand years ago must have been memorable. Not for the menu – bread and fish, no frills, no fancies. The location must have been interesting, an outdoor picnic in a remote place, but we are not told anything about the landscape or the beauty of the place. Calling it a wilderness makes it sound dry and arid. And the company? Five thousand people – and that was just the men – plus all the women and children – was not exactly cosy. Some of them might have remembered Psalm 78 where the people of God complain and mock God: “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” And there they were in the wilderness, and food was provided, in bountiful quantities, enough for everyone. And was this God’s provision? Yes it was. I wonder how many of them recognised that?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is uncovering more layers of meaning in that memorable meal. He recalls the way that God fed the people of Israel in the wilderness – this is the story that Psalm 78 is also remembering. When Moses brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the deserts, God fed them for 40 years with miraculous food. They had enough to eat until they came to the promised land. It was holy food because it came from God, but at the same time it wasn’t the kind of holy food that nurtured them spiritually, that brought them closer to God, that meant that God was dwelling in them. Psalm 78 calls it the bread of angels, but the real bread of angels was still to come, the bread that Jesus’ offers as his body.
Jesus is the Bread of Life, the living bread that comes from heaven. Every time we receive Holy Communion, Jesus feeds us with himself, so that Jesus becomes part of who we are. That is just so amazing! Jesus wants to be part of us, and wants us to be part of Him. At the Last Supper he gave thanks for the bread and wine and shared them. He said “do this to remember me”, and so we do it, week by week, remembering Jesus, being fed by Jesus, being nurtured and sustained, becoming more like Jesus as we absorb his body and his blood. The bread of angels is offered to us, a precious gift. It unites us with Christ and it unites as a community who share this holy feast.
There is another memorable meal I will never forget. It was the 7th October 2001, not too far from here in Birtley. In the morning, I had been ordained priest at Durham Cathedral and in the evening I presided for the first time at Mass. It was such a privilege. Almost 17 years on, it remains such a privilege. I come with empty hands and I offer the greatest of gifts – the body and blood of Christ. I am nobody, but the body of Christ is everything.
Jesus says that whoever eats this bread will live for ever. It is the bread of heaven, the bread of eternal life. When we eat this bread we are committed to living under God’s rule to bring God’s everlasting kingdom to earth. And we have the confidence that when our bodies die, we will live on.
I pray that this will be a most memorable meal for you. You are here to eat the bread of angels, the most precious food you will taste. Here in this church, a pale earthly pattern of the glory of heaven. Here, in the company of your brothers and sisters in Christ bodily present at this time and in all the ages past and in the years to come. Here, the angels in heaven rejoice with you and give glory to God. Here, Christ himself is giving you his body and his blood.
Jesus says to us: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.