The Word Encountered
The Bread of Labor
Working for perishable food. (John 6:27)
We work for food. We work hard. We get money for our work. And money? It has been known at times as “bread.” In fact, an advertisement for the Missouri lottery consecrates the miracle of winning as “our daily bread.”
We work for salvation, too. We produce, we practice virtue, we follow the rules, we do the required. Sometimes this allows us to think that we actually earn it all.
Still, we die. We perish. The things that sustain us perish with us. All of the earth goes back to the earth. All the physical bread, having once fed us, feeds the rest of the food chain. The old self, Paul reminds us, deteriorates through illusion and desire.
But Moses spoke of another bread. It would not fill the stomach like the diet of Egypt’s fleshpots. It would be manna from heaven, God’s promise, sheer gift, always there like snow on the ground.
Jesus in the fourth Gospel is portrayed as warning us not to work for perishable food. There is another kind of bread, the bread of our destiny, a “food that remains unto life eternal.” The people asked Jesus to perform a sign that they might believe in him. The eternal bread would be his sign-the new manna, the new bountiful gift of God. Jesus himself is to be our sustenance, and that is the work of God. “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me shall ever be hungry; no one who believes in me shall thirst again.”
This is not easy to believe, to say the least. It demands a great effort for us to let go of the illusion that we can ultimately feed or save ourselves. But this faith is precisely what Christ requires of us.
When the crowd asks Jesus what they must do to perform the works of God, he makes it very clear. “This is the work of God: have faith in the one God has sent.” Our vital labor as Christians is nothing other than our working to believe that Christ is indeed our bread of life, our sustenance.
If there is any pre-eminent task for us as we celebrate the Eucharist, then, it is not that we execute it well or work out our different roles, helpful as these things may be. Our task is to believe that our God, in Jesus, is our very food and drink.
The liturgy is not just a meal we have made, not just fellowship, not something we have artistically dreamed up. Its reality does not depend upon our ingenuity or virtue, our expertise in preaching or singing. It is fundamentally an act and gift of God.
Our act and gift in return is to receive it, to be nourished by it, to believe it.
This is not an easy task, our faith. And our generation is not the first to balk at Christ’s promise to be our real food. “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” This was the response that many made to him.
We too, in our own days of discipleship, when it is difficult to believe so lavish a miracle, are invited to offer a response.
Such is our work at hand.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University