As World War II was drawing to a close, allied forces gathered up all the hungry orphans they could find and gave them a safe place to be. Each child was given a comfortable bed, clean clothes and plenty to eat…they were well cared for, some for the first time in their young lives. But, despite this new safe environment, many of the children had a very difficult time sleeping at night. An insightful psychologist recommended that each child be given a piece of bread to sleep with at bedtime. Holding the bread, the children finally were able to sleep in peace knowing they ate today and will eat again tomorrow.
Jesus says “I am the Bread of Life – anyone who comes to me shall not hunger or thirst.”
If this was one of the other gospels I could easily wax on about the rich, first century tradition and meaning of meal sharing…about how Jesus’ invitation to “break bread” was not only about being fed but about extending his welcoming hand in friendship to the outcasts and rabble of his day. We could talk about how Jesus regularly risked his life to include at table those who were excluded from society because they were deemed unclean by the religious authorities and how many scholars say that Jesus was crucified precisely because of the scandal brought about by his choice of dinner partners.
But the Gospel of John does not give us these options.
Rather than give us a traditional account of the last supper, in this passage (Jn 6:24-35) we simply hear Jesus declare himself “The Bread of Life” – the first of seven very beautiful, but also rather odd “I AM” statements found in only in this gospel.
We expect people to say things like, “I am an accountant” or “I’m a stay-at-home Dad.” But our eyes would widen if someone introduced themselves metaphorically, like “I am the oil that keeps my company’s machine running smoothly” or “I am the antibody that defends my family from the virus of clutter.” This is not a common way of speaking. Yet Jesus does it all the time in this Gospel. So what are we to make of this language that seems so weird to our modern ears?
Just a few verses before this passage, we hear how Jesus fed a hungry crowd of thousands with just a few fish and a small basket of bread. This story continues with that same crowd stalking Jesus, hungry for more…more miracles…more food…literally chasing him across the sea of Galilee.
Jesus doesn’t ignore, minimize or spiritualize their real physical hunger, in fact he tends to their bodily needs first, without hesitation, because he knew, as Maslow teaches, that if our most basic needs are not met, we can think of nothing else. Or as Gandhi more poetically pointed out “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
But Jesus ALSO knows that just like the orphans, though we may be well fed, we can remain unwell if we are unable to grasp and trust in a deeper kind of security…a security that can only be found in our relationship with God.
There is a pattern that we find over and over in the Gospel of John where Jesus has an encounter (with someone like the Samaritan woman or Nicodemus), he offers a beautiful and mysterious metaphor, it is colossally misunderstood and then Jesus turns the confusion into an invitation to a deeper insight.
Like in this passage when Jesus in effect says to the crowd “You got it wrong. You’re missing the point! It was not Moses who gave you the manna, but God; it came from my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven – and the Father and I are one – so its ME! I AM the bread that gives life to the world.”
This scripture made me think of the day my first daughter was placed in my arms. I was so overwhelmed with love that I could barely breath. Honestly, until that very moment, I never even imagined that I had it in me to love that much.
And I remembered feeding her, especially as a toddler, breaking off little bits of fruit, cheese, bread. But I also thought of the meal we shared a couple months back as she was packing to leave for college.
She was preparing to move several hours away and was understandably a little anxious given all the uncertainty we have all faced during this time of pandemic, so I kept giving her pictures of our family and blankets that hold the fragrance of our home – my attempt to give her a few little chunks of bread to hold onto to help her sleep at night.
But I ALSO want for her to see beyond all the literal and figurative pieces of bread that her Father and I have joyfully provided for her over the years. I want her to understand the deeper significance within all these provisions of shelter, safety, medical care, clothing and to see that our attentiveness to her needs is an expression of our deep love and care for her and our passionate desire for her to grow and flourish. The “stuff” we have given her is only a metaphor that points to a much more secure foundation…namely, our unshakable love for her.
Maybe that is what Jesus was trying to say. Look beyond the bread that fills your belly and see the love with which it was given to you, to nourish you so that you may flourish.
When Jesus says This is my body, this is my flesh and blood given for you, he is in effect saying “Here. I give you ALL OF ME. Everything I have is yours. You don’t need to hold a piece of bread under your pillow at night, because I am here and I’m not going anywhere. I AM the bread of life. In me lies your real security. Don’t focus on the bread in your hand, but on the one who gives it to you; the one who desires to be so close to you so as to become food for you.
If our daughter left our home, after so many years of care and relationship and only acknowledged the stuff we gave her and was completely blind to the how madly and deeply we love her and wish for her to thrive – we would feel deeply misunderstood.
The crowds actions and words reveal a deep misunderstanding of Jesus’ purpose and message. Jesus is giving us bread provided by the very author of love, the God who brought us into being and loves us far more than we could ever imagine – without boundary or breaking point. This love is that eternal ingredient that Jesus very personally, and at great cost, comes to deliver to us right here in our very own history.
“Faith in Christ is not merely an intellectual assent to a particular set of claims or moral norms, but rather it is a profoundly relational, emotional, and existential trust in God, a bone-deep belief that God loves and cares for us. Our security lies in the giver of this nourishment. For just as Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, he is also God’s love made tangible, the bread that ‘gives life to the world.'” 1
Jesus didn’t invite us to worship him, but rather to follow him. Our scriptures do not say “we represent” or “replace” or we “symbolize” Jesus. It just says “We ARE the body of Christ.” So, if Jesus is the revealer of God’s life-giving ways, then that is our calling too. In this spirit, at the end of our ancient Eucharistic prayer, St. Augustine used to hold up the blessed bread and say:
“Behold what you are. Become what you receive.”
Some of the insights for this reflection come from these amazing writers and speakers: Ron Rolheiser, Brennen Manning, Dennis, Sheila & Matthew Linn, Scott Hoezee, Warren Carter, Dr. Sofia Cavalletti, and Gianna Gobbi.