Ethiopia suffered a terrible famine during the years 1984 to 1986. The late Cardinal Hume of Westminster tells about an incident that happened when he visited Ethiopia in the middle of the famine. One of the places he visited was a settlement up in the hills where the people were waiting for food which was unlikely to arrive. He was taken there in a helicopter.
As he got out of the helicopter a small boy, aged about ten, came up to him and took his hand. He was wearing nothing but a loincloth around his waist. The whole time the cardinal was there the little child would not let go of his hand.
As they went around he made two gestures: with one hand he pointed to his mouth, and with the other he took the cardinal’s hand and rubbed it on his cheek.
Later the cardinal said, ‘Here was an orphan boy who was lost and starving. Yet by two simple gestures he indicated our two fundamental needs or hungers. With one gesture he showed me his need for food and with the other his hunger for love.
‘I have never forgotten that incident, and to this day I wonder whether that child is still alive. I remember that as I boarded the helicopter he stood and looked at me reproachfully.’
Today’s first reading gives us a sentence that Jesus quoted when he was tempted in the desert, ‘A human being doesn’t live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ We need ordinary bread, no fuss about that, but we have deeper needs also and that is the focus of today’s feast. I take it that when Moses and Jesus were talking about ‘bread alone’ they meant our basic material needs. A good friend of mine was fond of summing up today’s consumerism by saying, ‘the world is a great place if you are young, rich and healthy. But take away one or two of these and you are not in a good space.’ Material needs are essential but they are not enough and to live solely for them is going to leave us very empty and dissatisfied sooner or later. Furthermore, such an agenda is very much centred on the self, on a ‘me-culture’ and on what I want to do with my life, regardless of anybody else. There is no regard here for that other fundamental need that the little orphan boy pointed to, namely, the hunger for love, affection, and friendship.
The hunger for love goes much deeper. Its focus is very different. While our material needs turn us in on ourselves, the focus of love has us forgetting about self in our willingness to reach out to the other in care and concern. This brings us right to the heart of the Eucharist where we celebrate the passion, death, and resurrection of a man who poured out his whole life in one great act of loving and giving.
Today’s readings suggest we focus on the Eucharist as a memorial. The mass is a precious exercise in memory that has the power to carry us through the ups and downs of living. In the first reading, Moses gave his people one command in two forms: “Remember” and “Do not forget.” What they are to remember is God’s loving presence and companionship that was with them in all their wanderings through the desert. They often felt like deserting their God and going back to the fleshpots of Egypt but God never deserted them. What God was pulling them away from was not just slavery in Egypt but, more importantly, the slavery of their own egoism and self-centredness. The real exodus was an exodus from self. Moses reminded them that, in spite of their fears, they didn’t die. The water from the rock didn’t taste like Coca Cola and the manna from heaven was probably insipid but they got by even though they didn’t have everything they wanted. What they did learn was that God could be counted on to take care of them, never leaving them to face their perils alone. 40 years is a long time but perhaps every one of them necessary to learn faith. Furthermore, letting go of one’s egoism doesn’t get done and dusted on a bright afternoon. 40 is a good number for that also.
Fast forward to the New Testament and we see an eager crowd pressing around Jesus because they witnessed the miraculous multiplication of loaves. Unfortunately, they wanted to stay at this level of free bread. Jesus wanted to offer them a different bread, the bread of life, the bread of commitment, the bread of following him through suffering into real union with God. Two very different viewpoints begin to emerge leading to a parting of ways. They want literal bread in the hand whereas Jesus is inviting them into his own exodus through death to life. They are content to live on bread alone whereas Jesus is inviting them to receive him as the Father’s gift and become one with him.
Paul reminds his people that eating and drinking in the name of Jesus implies being united with him in his self-giving, in his dying and his rising. It is communion, not a free lunch. St. Augustine claims that in partaking of the Eucharist we become that which we consume. In other words, the Eucharist is transforming and changing us. We cannot partake of the Eucharist in a genuine fashion and simply remain static. To receive Jesus into our hearts is to allow his love to change us and to enable us to shape our lives according to the pattern of Jesus’ own life. It is not just the bread and wine that is sanctified. We likewise are sanctified and given food for the journey ahead.
Thus, the Eucharist calls us to go out of ourselves, to move beyond our preferences and appetites, and to take up Jesus’ offer of communion with him. This is a journey that will be every bit as frightening and grace-filled as the one which Moses led his people. Our advantage over our Israelite ancestors is that we can learn from their experience and go beyond it. Christ promises us not just his presence, but the communion that gave him life.
Sunday, 18th June 2017