Ex 16:2-4, 12-15 / Eph 4:17, 20-24 / Jn 6:24-35
There are many kinds of signs in the world. Some signs tell us facts: like a “stop” sign. Still other signs symbolize something, like the pictures in your wallet. And then there are the signs we call “sacraments,” which Christ has given us not to communicate facts, and not as mere symbols, but as actual embodiments of His love and real presence.
This weekend’s Gospel passage, John 6:24-35, comes immediately after the story of Jesus’ miracle of the multiplication of loaves to feed the five thousand. Still, this fantastic sign, which communicated both a fact (Jesus’ power) and a symbol (reminding them of the manna in the desert), was not enough for the people following Jesus. So, in their desperate hunger to know whether God had sent Jesus, and so to know that God still loved them and that He had not abandoned them, as He had never abandoned Moses and their ancestors, they ask for an even greater sign: “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? …Our ancestors ate manna in the desert.”
But Jesus knows that no mere sign would ever satisfy their hunger to believe. What they needed was a sign that was more than a sign, a sign beyond human wisdom and power. And that sign, Jesus says, is Himself. Jesus is, in His very person, a sign of the love and presence of God. And not just a merely symbolic sign: He is the actual physical love and presence of God.
Unfortunately, this is a sign that is not easily understood by human wisdom – it requires faith. The crowd asks for a sign that will force them to have faith, but Jesus tells them that they must have faith first: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
Jesus also knows that He will not remain in the world as the real physical sign of God. So He plans to leave behind another sign which will also make God substantially present in the world. And so He says to them: “I am the bread of life…”
These words were very confusing, even to Jesus’ apostles. But His apostles had faith in Him. So a few months later, on the night He was betrayed, as they saw Him take bread, bless, break and give it to them, they remembered how He had done this same thing right before He fed the five thousand. And as Jesus handed them the bread saying, “this is my body,” they also remembered the words He had spoken after feeding the five thousand: “I am the bread of life.” And so, believing in Him, they believed in His new and mysterious sacrament.
At every Mass as the priest repeats Our Lord’s words, “this is my body,” Jesus becomes really present under the sacramental sign of bread. Nothing we can do can change this fact, but if we refuse to believe that this sign is what Jesus says It is, then we will continue to hunger and thirst for other signs to satisfy our desire to know that we are in God’s presence and love. If, however, we come to our Eucharistic Lord believing in Him and the sacramental sign He gives us, He will keep His promise to us: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”