Every good Catholic family knows that saying grace before meals is very important, because eating is among the most intimate ways we know for joining our lives with others as well as with God, who is the source of life. Amid the whirl and speed of life, saying grace before meals is a patient and focused time in which we become mindful of our place in the world. Eating is not simply a physical act. It also has a spiritual aspect, whereby the deep and sacramental significance of life is learned daily.
Mary F.K. Fisher (1908-1992), a prominent American food writer and founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library, is credited with having said, “First we eat, then we do everything else.” I think that these words accurately reflect the important role that food plays in our lives.
History shows that food is one of the central aspects of our lives. Our
life has somehow always centered around food. The flourishing of ancient civilizations depended on establishing, maintaining, and controlling a food source. Whether one lived in the desert, the plains, the coast or the mountains, how they found, chose, cultivated and cooked their food would determine much of their lifestyle. It was central to culture, heritage and family traditions in today’s world.
If we explore the important place of food in our lives a bit further, it becomes apparent that “what we eat tells a lot about who we are.” This means our food choices communicate how we are sustained, what resources are available, where we come from, and even our priorities.
In the Gospel, Jesus uses the staple food of bread to point His followers to something more. He suggests that the crowd is following Him to get a free meal – as they did in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. But they should be looking to Him for so much more!
Jesus refers to Himself as the “bread of life.” That’s really an extraordinary statement! By equating Himself with bread, a staple food in the Middle East, Jesus is saying that He is essential for life. The life Jesus is referring to is not physical life, but eternal life. Ordinary bread goes stale or moldy very quickly in a hot climate. Jesus refers to himself as the bread that lasts forever and always gives life. He’s urging his disciples, his followers to think not only of the physical, but of the spiritual realm as well. Jesus has provided food for their bodies, but He also feeds them and us spiritually with love, hope, grace and forgiveness. This is the true manna from heaven, which points beyond itself. As the source of all life, God meets us here and now as divine love made food, as life for humanity.
In today’s world, it’s not all that common – and might even be considered countercultural – to claim that we need God, and that God is the source of our life. Yet, the Israelite people totally depended on God for their very survival. That’s why Jesus draws the crowd’s attention to the very story that was in the First Reading. He reminds them of how the Israelites wandered in the Sinai wilderness, and how, when the food ran out and their lives were on the line, God came through and gave them bread from heaven.
Today, God still comes through for us, for He gave us His only Son, Jesus, who is the Bread of Life, and who sustains us each day on our journey as His disciples. Just as Jesus invited the crowds in the Gospel into a new way of experiencing Him and themselves, so, too, does Christ invite us to cast off our old ways of thinking and living and, in this way, to shed our habits of working for perishable things. St. Augustine commented on this, saying, “How many people there are who seek Jesus solely for worldly goods…. Rarely does someone look for Jesus for the sake of Jesus.”
Jesus asks us to let go of the things that we often make the center of our lives: things like success, power, money, and honor, so that we might really, truly focus on Him. As we claim Jesus as the source and center of our lives, we’re given the strength to put away our old selves and our former way of life and put on the new self of being a disciple of our Lord. He is the true food which transforms us and gives us strength to live our Christian vocation.
Pope Saint John Paul pointed this out in a homily in 1979: “It is only by means of the Eucharist that we are able to live the heroic virtues of Christianity, such as charity to pardon one’s enemies, the love which enables us to suffer, the capacity to give one’s life for another; chastity at all times of life and in all situations; patience in the face of suffering and the apparent silence of God in human history or our very own existence. Therefore, strive to always be eucharistic souls so as to be authentic Christians.”
May we always seek to find our nourishment at the Eucharistic banquet where Our Lord gives us His Body and Blood as true food and drink so that we might not hunger and thirst. For, if we make Christ the center of our lives and draw our strength from Him, we will be sustained for living as His disciples in the midst of the world today. As St. John Vianney (whose feast we celebrate this Wednesday) taught, “If we pray and love in this way, we will be truly happy!”