I have always found the aroma of bread freshly baked very comforting. That smell always makes me feel somehow at home. Perhaps it is because bread is such a staple of life. Furthermore, it is difficult to limit oneself to a single piece of bread that has just been taken out of the oven. It is almost as if a primal craving has been tapped and an overpowering drive unleashed.
There is another kind of craving for bread, one that stems from stark necessity rather than simple and remembered pleasure. In the very country where obesity is one of the most serious health concerns, millions of people go hungry. Most of us do not know this experience. I do not mean the uneasiness we feel when we miss a meal or two. I am talking about genuine hunger, the sensation that the body has begun to feed on itself and we are being sapped of our energy. This is a true craving for bread.
It is to just such a longing for food that Moses refers in the first reading for today’s feast. He reminds the Israelites, who are about to enter the land of promise, that their ancestors knew real hunger when they were in the wilderness. Their hunger was so intense that they even pleaded to return to Egypt. There, though enslaved, they at least had food to eat. Moses also reminds them that God provided for those ancestors by sending manna. Scholars tell us that what the people considered miraculous food was probably quite common in that part of the desert. Still, the nature of the food is not the point of the story. What is important is that God provided nourishment when the people could not do so themselves.
Moses clearly states that God did this “in order to show [them] that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” In other words, there is a hunger that only God can satisfy. Still, the question must be asked: do we really experience that hunger? Have we ever known a primal craving for God?
I am convinced that the craving for God is more common than one might think. I believe that the frantic search for meaning or for acceptance that consumes so many people today is at its heart a search for God. Furthermore, I think that there are many people who are very much like the Jewish crowds in today’s Gospel. They are good people who are not prepared to accept some of the claims made by Jesus. I simply suggest that they are searching for God, although this suggestion might be considered brash. Jesus, on the other hand, claimed that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” This is a bold claim indeed!
Today’s readings are filled with bold claims: Moses claims that we need God’s word as much as we need food; Jesus claims that we must feed on his body and blood if we would have life; Paul claims that when we partake of the one loaf, we are intimately joined to one another. We need faith to accept these claims. We may all experience genuine craving for fulfillment, but only faith can help us recognize what will satisfy that craving. Today’s sequence expresses this succinctly: “Sight has fail’d, nor thought conceives, but a dauntless faith believes.”
The body and blood of the risen Christ possess extraordinary features. When we eat ordinary food, we turn it into our own being. But when we eat his body and drink his blood, we are transformed by it. We remain in him, and he remains in us. A bond is forged that not only grants us life, but endures into eternal life. Furthermore, we are bound together with all others who partake of this food and drink.
Those of us who search for meaning can, through faith, find it in the life promised with this food; those of us who search for acceptance can, through faith, find it by common sharing of this one loaf. But we must remember that in our eucharist celebration, this bread is a body, now glorified, that was once broken, and the drink is the blood of the now-risen Lord that was once poured out. We are assured life through his death. Once again, only faith can enable us to accept what we cannot fully grasp.
At the heart of the mystery that we celebrate today is the fundamental mystery of God’s love for us. We have been created with a craving for God. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.” While we await our final fulfillment in God, we have the body and blood of Christ to satisfy our hunger and our thirst. He is the real staple of life. Once we realize this, we will not be satisfied with anything less.