Lectionary #113, Gospel John 6: 24-35
“Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert” (Exodus16:3-4).
Moving from a state of real or perceived security into uncharted territory is a recurring and fundamental challenge of human life. In order to avoid this challenge we tend to happily accept predictability in exchange for the uncertainty and ambiguity that come with freedom and new initiatives.
Much of the Old Testament and to an extent the New Testament could be said to be the story of going from regularity to responsibility. Looking at this from another perspective, one of the fundamental temptations faced in the New Testament is that of turning back—going back to what one perceives as safety instead of confronting the frightening responsibilities of freedom and faith that come with being a disciple of Jesus. The courage of the Magi in refusing to return to Herod and betray the safety of the Christ child (Matt 2:7-12), the calling of the apostles in which they are suddenly asked to leave everything behind (Mark 1:16-20), and the sad encounter of Jesus with of the rich young man (Luke 18:18-30) are all expressions of this age-old story.
Today’s scriptures present the paradigmatic example of this human tendency to want to remain behind, and keep “secure”. First, in Exodus, the Israelites pine for the fleshpots of Egypt and the security they brought, though at the cost of their liberty and dignity, and they want to turn back from their recently made escape from slavery and enter into servitude again, so long as they have enough to eat. This sounds ridiculous—no one would want to go back into slavery, right!?—but in fact each of us repeats this pattern in many small and large ways in our own lives, trading a part of our freedom in Christ and freedom within our relationships with others for a sense of security and predictability.
In the same fashion, though in different circumstances, the disciples of Jesus whom we encounter in the gospel object to being brought into the freedom that he offers them through participation in his life and in the “Bread of Life”—his very body and blood. The Eucharist which is forecast in this passage is a ratification of our willingness to share in everything with Jesus: his human life, his sufferings and death, and his resurrection. This momentous responsibility is too much for some, who want the clear order of the Law, or the fixed pattern of life as they know it, hemmed in as it may be but at least predictable. To share in the Bread of Life is to make our own the frightening freedom that God invites us to possess—and which renders us stewards of our own lives and choices.
This is what makes freedom so frightening, that it brings with it responsibility and the possibility of both success and failure. We fear our human weakness, that it will cause us to fall short and be humiliated. Christ has no such fear: he knew the beauty and nobility of human nature, and he also knew its frailty and woundedness. Christ became human precisely in order to redeem our sinful failings, and to strengthen our weakness, so that we may fully embrace the freedom he renews within us, which is sacramentally revealed in Bread of Life of the Eucharist.
Today, instead of holding on to the security of fixed ways, let us humbly “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4) for “we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Romans 8:15).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.