August 5; 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

18th OTFood! Glorious Food!

Last year, Tourism New Zealand, in a survey, found that eight in ten (80%) Malaysians had ranked 'indulging in a country’s local delicacies' as the activity they enjoyed doing most when on holiday in another country. The survey merely confirms what we Malaysians already know – we love food. There are many divisive elements in this country; race, religion, political affiliation – but we all seem to be united by our passion (or some would venture to say ‘obsession’) with food. It does seem that all divisions end when we eat. That is why the one word in Bahasa Malaysia that foreigners will frequently hear is ‘Makan’. Yes, eating is meant to keep humans alive but not for most Malaysians. For us, it is more than survival! We eat at will and not because of a hungry stomach. Not satisfied with just three meals in a day, we enthusiastically add brunch and high-teas. Just done with dinner? Why stop? Let’s go indulge in some late night supper!

So today’s readings can certainly resonate with us. It’s all about food, the basis for most of our comments, complaints and adulation. But before we consider these readings, let us find out what scripture says about food. It certainly agrees with what most Malaysians believe – it’s more than just a matter of survival. Food was used as a symbol of God’s Providence as well as a source of temptation. From the very beginning of time, when God first created the universe, His intention was that we would all come to Him to receive the grace, wisdom, and strength we needed. Genesis uses the image of the two fruit-bearing, food-providing trees in the Garden of Eden to convey this central truth: The tree of life held all the treasures of His divine plan, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil supported the philosophy that we could decide for ourselves what was right or wrong — we didn’t need to be fed and sustained by God.

The first reading takes us back to the Sinai desert. The Israelites had been set free from slavery in Egypt, and they were now headed for the Promised Land. The journey was hard, food and water were scarce and the people began to complain. But here in this lifeless wilderness, God gave His people water from a rock and manna from heaven. The Jews of Jesus’ day believed that in the coming age, the miracle of the manna would be repeated. And they believed that this miracle would be performed by the promised Messiah, the One who would take Moses’ place as Israel’s new redeemer.

Many centuries later, our Lord fed thousands of people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. This is what we heard in last week’s gospel. At the beginning of Chapter 6, St John is quick to point out that this miraculous feeding took place just before the feast of Passover (6:4). It seems that this is intended to help the reader make the link, the connexion to the past and pointing to something far greater in the present. Christians see this miracle as pointing toward a new Passover, one that was not grounded in deliverance from physical slavery but in deliverance from slavery to sin and death. Expanding their hopes even more, our Lord tells His audience that whoever comes to Him, will never hunger and thirst any longer, and that His bread would bring eternal life, while the manna in the desert could only sustain and strengthen their mortal lives. Jesus, the true bread from heaven, is even greater than manna, the bread from heaven, since it is His “flesh for the life of the world.” Our Lord assures us: “Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

The great Bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Ambrose, wrote the following: “What is greater, manna from heaven or the body of Christ? The body of Christ, of course, for He is the Creator of heaven. In addition, he who ate the manna died but he who has eaten this body, it will become for him the forgiveness of sins and he ‘shall not die forever’.”

The manna from heaven given by God to His people in the desert during the Exodus and the miracle of multiplication in the gospel are clearly anticipation or foreshadowing of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is “the new manna.” Unlike the old manna which fell from heaven, this Eucharistic bread is different, however, since it is the Bread of Life; it is Jesus, His flesh that gives life through the Holy Spirit. The “new manna” of the Eucharist is the food for our journey to heaven. That is why the Eucharist is called “Viaticum,” a Latin word that means “with you on the way.” As the manna provided bodily nourishment for the Israelites in the desert, the “new manna” provides spiritual nourishment for us, satisfying our hungry hearts.

There is more. The connexion between manna and the Eucharist is found in several places in our liturgy. In the newest English translation of the Second Eucharistic Prayer, we hear the words of consecration spoken by the priest at the very beginning: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” During the Exodus, dew fell upon the camp of the chosen people in the desert and, when it evaporated, the heavenly manna was there on the ground. The dewfall yielded food from heaven for the Israelites on their pilgrimage. For us, in the Eucharist, the dewfall of the Holy Spirit yields the Body and Blood of Christ for our pilgrimage to heaven. Another parallel between the manna and the Eucharist is that the Israelites conserved the manna in the Ark of the Covenant. This foreshadows the tabernacle in our churches where Christ is adored in the Eucharist. The consecrated hosts are kept in a golden ciborium, reminiscent of the gold jar in which the manna was kept in the Ark of the Covenant.

So many of us fail to realise how “eating” such heavenly food adds an additional and radical dimension to our spiritual lives. In St John’s first epistle, we are reminded that the apostles and the first generation Christians were with Jesus, they saw Him with their own eyes; they heard Him preach with their own ears; they touched Him with their own hands (1 John 1:1-2). But one vital sense was missing: tasting. The apostles saw, heard, and touched Jesus. But they had not yet grasped what it meant to eat Jesus’ flesh as the Bread of Life. At the Last Supper, when the apostles ate and drank with Jesus, a new dimension was opened up for them, and they were able to enter into a far more intimate relationship and connexion with the Lord; they would literally be transformed into what they ate. The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “Material food first of all turns itself into the person who eats it, and as a consequence, restores his losses and increases his vital energies. Spiritual food, on the other hand, turns the person who eats it into Itself, and thus the proper effect of this sacrament is the conversion of man into Christ, so that he may no longer live for himself, but that Christ may live in Him.”

Today, we can encounter the tree of life every time we eat the body of Christ and drink Jesus’ blood in Holy Communion. Today, we can partake and “eat” of the true manna, not the perishable bread which the Israelites ate in the desert, but Christ who gives us His own Body and Blood for consumption so that we might gain eternal life. When we feed on this heavenly food, the Lord Jesus comes to dwell within us and make us like Himself. In the Eucharist, we truly become what we eat. All these may seem too lofty for us to fully grasp. That is why the great Cure D’Ars, St John Vianney reminds us, “We shall only understand it in heaven. What a pity! If we could conceive a little of the grandeur and happiness of Communion, we would desire life only to have the happiness of making Jesus Christ our daily bread. All created things would be as nothing.”