We in Brooklyn Heights are experts in nonverbal communication. Living here requires communicating with dogs and babies. After 5 years on Sidney place, I am proud to say that I have mastered puppy and infant and progressing nicely with dog and toddler. It is amazing how effectively both groups can express basic instincts most particularly hunger without saying a word. A dog will look at you with the saddest eyes and an infant after a few warning signs will start crying. As we emerge from Covid we have seen that many people have discovered that they are hungry but are not certain for what and don’t have the language to express it. Luckily, St John wishes to teach us this language.
In St John’s gospel Jesus is the master teacher who understands where people are at and knows the questions to bring them to where they need to be.
He has just multiplied the loaves and the fish. His audience has interpreted the miracle in very human and indeed political terms. Last week’s reading ended with, since “Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone. (Jn 6:15).
He then slipped across the sea of Galilee, but a crowd has followed him. Jesus confronts them immediately. They are not following him because they have understood the full meaning of the miracle but because they seek material gain. Misunderstanding the call of the Messiah, they thought Jesus a means of political liberation.
No matter how completely our material needs are met there will always be more. Material prosperity can bring momentary contentment but never complete fulfillment. We can ignore this by the illusion that the next accomplishment, the next success often the next trinket will bring the fulfillment we seek.
Jesus knows better and understands as well that many of the people who followed him did so because they want more but can’t explain what or why. He is not listening to what they are saying, he is looking at what they are doing. He has disrupted their lives and they are questioning some basic beliefs; they may be bewildered but they are receptive.
Jesus tells them that they should want more, but not more of the same, something deeper and more enriching. He only then brings up religion. He says that the Father has set his seal on Jesus. This reflected the customs of the day. An author would put his seal on important documents to prove their authenticity. Jesus tells them that God himself has marked Jesus as his messenger.
Their response is also religious in nature: “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” (Jn 6:28). This could be translated as to what should we devote ourselves. They are most likely expecting Jesus to suggest good and pious actions which will give their lives greater meaning and purpose.
His answer however is” This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” They must devote ourselves to Jesus. They are of course skeptical but still interested. They didn’t leave him, but they want a sign. In their tradition the most venerable sign for being filled was Manna.
As we saw in today’s first reading from the book of Exodus when the Israelites were in the desert after the parting of the Red Sea, they found themselves constantly short of food. Moses asked God for relief, and he sent Manna down from heaven to feed them. Manna is from the coriander plant, but the people understood that its regular appearance was through God’s goodness, power and mercy. It was their food for the journey.
Jesus reminds them that it was God and not Moses who gave them the Manna. Moses was an agent, but Jesus is the gift. True bread does not mean that the manna was false or an illusion but that it was incomplete indeed only a sign of what was to come. Jesus tells them that he is the Bread of Life. True fulfillment will come only from him.
In the Bread of Life discourse which they will now hear, and we will read over the next few weeks, Jesus will explain what he has said.
Let us look at ourselves. Our lives have been disrupted and perhaps many people are more receptive than before. But we too must look at what people are doing as much if not more than what they are saying. Some people are willing to look at religion. If you are a known Catholic, you may have been asked seemingly innocuous questions which may contain a hidden depth. Wear a Miraculous Medal or saints pin and see what I mean. Most often though we need to look at peoples’ actions.
There has been a vast increase in eating disorders during Covid. Psychologists tell us that this is a sign of people trying to get control over their lives. Others, especially teenagers and older adults have experienced depression for the first time in their lives. These two groups were deprived of human connections when they most needed them, and their entire bodies have reacted to the loss.
On the lighter side, so many people wanted dogs and other pets that they are no longer available in New York and others are expressing their need for self-expression by near nudity in public.
Certainly, there is a place for psychology and pharmacology in some situations and hopefully common sense will prevail in others. But we as Christians should see in this a desire if not a cry for sustenance. Many people are at root not angry nor even confused but hungry, but they do not have the language to express it.
For the next several weeks Jesus will give us the language to express our deepest needs and at the same time the means to fulfill them. Let us listen not only for ourselves but for our family, friends and colleagues who are bewildered but uncertain where to turn..
The Lord will teach us that the world can offer them a healthy snack, but he is hosting a glorious banquet.