Catholics are familiar with the Bread of Life Discourse, found in John 6, where Christ gives the theological underpinning for the theology of the Eucharist. When we hear this passage we think of manna as Christ’s dialogue about the manna forms a major part of the chapter.
As is often the case in Scripture, the meaning here is deeper than simply a promise of a future sacrament. Christ holds a mirror to our sinful human condition and asks us a bold question: Do we stay with Him or do we turn away?
This question, posed by Christ throughout the millennia, is as powerful today as it was 2000 years ago. History shows us many who turned away from Christ and His Church, just as today many deny Him and the bounty He promises.
Having fed the five thousand men the previous day, Christ speaks to His disciples of the manna in the desert. The manna given to the Israelites was bread from Heaven, and Christ explains how He is the true bread that has come down from Heaven. To His disciples, He offers His flesh as “true food.”
The disciples are, understandably, shocked. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)
It is an appropriate question. It follows a previous assumption on the disciples’ part, namely that Moses, not God, had sent the manna (Exodus 16). They likewise thought Moses sent the quail that accompanied the manna (flesh to go with the bread). Yet Moses did not give the Israelites quail nor did he send them the manna. Moses merely prayed for his people, and God provided bread and flesh from Heaven to feed them.
Now the God who became Man offers us “Bread”, that is flesh. He is no mere man, but the God who sent both manna and quail; He now offers to His people a new feast, a perfection of the manna and quail in the desert.
However, there is another quail story (see Numbers 11). While the Israelites wandered in the desert, they began to again grumble about the pathetic food (as they saw it) that God had provided for them. In response, God sent a huge flock of quail that spread throughout the camp. The people began to gorge themselves, gathering excessive amounts of the birds. Yet while the meat was in their teeth, a “plague” swept through the camp. It seems the people did not want to wait on God. They wanted to control Him, to conform Him to their wills. They ate the flesh like animals, resulting in their doom.
In a twist on the biblical image, Jesus uses the same imagery, that of devouring flesh like an animal, to explain what we should do with this new manna. In doing so, He reveals the truth of the eating of the quail. It wasn’t the act of eating the quail that doomed the Israelites. It was their attempt to control when and how God gave them food. It is a similar greed to what we see in the hearts of Jesus’ hearers. They want to control God.
This dialogue between Christ and his followers is no mere intellectual exercise; it is the story of the Exodus recapitulated. The discourse begins on the hillside, where Christ fed the five thousand. Passover drew near, and just as in the original Passover, we see bread and meat brought together in the loaves and fishes. The people gathered and share the meal as evening approaches, mirroring the Israelites feasting on lamb meat and unleavened bread at Passover.
In Exodus the Israelites move en masse from Egypt and are stopped by the Red Sea. They escape the Egyptians by passing through the sea, which parts at Moses’ command. In John 6, we see Jesus walking on the water, despite the dangers and threats of the storm. He brings His disciples to the seaside, a perfection of the Mosaic miracle.
This brings us to the manna and quail story, which forms the basis for the rest of John 6.
Ultimately, is not the reaction of those hearers of Jesus the same as the Israelites who died in the desert? They hear and see what God has done. Miracles appear before their eyes; God Himself speaks to them, though now no longer through clouds and thunder but through the Word Incarnate. And yet they leave. They return to their former ways of life. They reject His call to conversion, His attempt to lead them out of Egypt. And in rejecting Him, they find death.
“Who can accept it?”
Is it not the same with the heresies of the Church? Are they not essentially Christians, followers of Christ, who cannot accept what He said and did, who often say, “This teaching is hard. Who can accept it?” They say this, and reject the teaching, and “walk with Him no longer.”
This is what the Gnostics did in all of their perverted permeations. We need not listen to the words recorded in the Gospels, they said. We will make our own gospels, after our own ideas! In doing this, they lost the Lord Himself.
It is what the great Christological heresies did in rejecting Christ as fully human and fully divine. What saints and popes said was wrong, these heretics declared. We alone know the truth. Yet in denying the truths taught by popes, saints, and Church Fathers, the heretics lost sight of Truth itself.
Fast-forward through the centuries and you see the same story in every heresy and schism. Heretics and schismatics alike declare one teaching or another “too hard,” or “impossible to accept.” Even the Modernists, who refrained from explicitly denying the Creed, looked at the vastness of God, balked at the mystery, and sought to change the Creed’s meaning, believing the Creed was “too hard.”
Our New Error
Today we face a new heresy: the denial of God’s unconditional love, which manifests itself in two main ways.
We see the heresy in those who perpetrate horrors against others. The list seems endless: racists, abusers (both physical and sexual), liars, and murderers. Many of these malfeasants are members of our Church. They do these horrible acts ,often for selfish reasons, and, by doing them, they deny the love of God owed to their victims. The majority of men and women of good will rightly see these actions as wrong and identify the lack of love in these acts.
At the same time, another strain of this heresy denies God’s love towards those who do these evil acts. This strain holds that we cannot love those who have done these evil things, whether the evildoers attacked others or ourselves. We see the hatred strewn across technological screens, as we spread this heresy in the anonymous safety of social media sites.
Our Common Vocation
Yet Christ witnesses, despite the horrors, that there is love enough for everyone. We see evil as evil, and see not the creature behind the acts. We miss the confused, wrong, even immoral, fellow man who needs God’s love and mercy, now more than ever. We must not tire of offering Him to them. The sinner is loved, the sin is hated. It is the sinner’s responsibility to embrace the love God offers, for He does not cease in loving.
That, for many, is too much. They see the mercy and love offered to such grave sinners and say the Church is no place for them. For them, God’s call to “love one another,” to “love your enemies” is “too hard,” and they “walk with Him no more.”
It is our responsibility, as members of His Mystical Body, to reach out to sinners, heretics, and apostates, as well as faithful Christians, and evangelize. We all have the vocation to share the good news of God’s love for all. We do so united to Christ, saying with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”