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This Sunday, the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B, Jesus offers each of us what Moses offered the Jewish people: A chance to change our self-definition from shame to glory.
We no longer have to be slaves content to do the bidding of our enemy in exchange for creature comforts. Now we can be something far greater: Chosen sons and daughters of God.
Jesus follows up the multiplication of the loaves with two startling — and revealing — actions.
Last we saw the crowd in Sunday’s Gospel, they were reclining in the grass as Jesus himself multiplied loaves and fishes for their supper. It was an extraordinary scene: It was like the story of Martha and Mary on a mass scale, only the people were relaxing while Jesus with his apostles was like a holy Martha, busy serving them.
But the Jewish crowd saw something different: They saw Moses, the Israelites and manna in the desert.
Remember: This story takes place at Passover time, so the story of Moses is forefront on everyone’s mind. Everyone sees the significance when he multiplies bread like manna, and then miraculously crosses the sea of Galilee by walking on water, like Moses on the Red Sea, leaving the crowd startled to find him across the lake.
Then, instead of reaching out to them with an abundance of gifts again, Jesus seems to do the opposite. He says: “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
He is harking back to the journey of the Jewish people from shame to glory.
In the First Reading, from Exodus, the Israelite community grumbles at the lack of food in the desert and say that they prefered slavery where “we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread” and even go so far as to wish they had died as slaves with full bellies instead of being free and hungry.
In response, God multiplies quail and manna to take the place of their fleshpots. But now Jesus wants to take his people to a new level. He doesn’t want a relationship where they work and he feeds them. He doesn’t want to be a new and better Pharaoh. He wants to be a new and better Moses.
He gave the Samaritan woman a water that quenches all thirst — baptism; now he offers his followers bread that quenches all hunger — the Eucharist.
So often, though, we look to Jesus for “food that perishes” instead of what he wants to give us.
As Augustine put it, “How many seek Jesus for no other objective than to get some kind of temporal benefit! One has a business that has run into problems, and he seeks the intercession of the clergy; another is oppressed by someone more powerful than himself, and he flies to the church. Another desires intervention with someone over whom he has little influence. One person wants this, and another person wants that. The church is filled with these kinds of people! Jesus is scarcely sought after for his own sake.”
Instead, Jesus tells the Jewish people what he wants to offer: “food that endures for eternal life” because “on him the Father, God, has set his seal,” Think of it like a wax seal: Jesus himself is the image of the Father.
More than food that perishes, he wants to give us food that allows us to “accomplish the works of God.” The work of God is to believe in Jesus, which means to know he is God — trusting him, confiding in him and living for him.
This is how we go from shame to glory — from a slave working for the fleshpots of Pharaoh to accomplishing the works of God in the body and blood of Christ.
As Jesus is sealed with the image of God, we are sealed with the image of Christ.
It is at Mass that we put off our “old self” and put on the “new self,” as Paul puts it in the Second Reading.
Our “new self” is Jesus Christ himself. “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; that is not how you learned Christ,” he says. Instead he wants us to be “renewed in the spirit of your minds” with a new self in Christ.
The old way of living is to wallow in our shame as creatures who wander from the will of God into whatever “deceitful desires” draw us along; the new way is to live our own Exodus from sin, led by God himself to a promised land of glory. Our old self was a slave; our new self is an icon of Christ.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, “whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
It that sounds abstract or esoteric, the saints remind us how real it is.
As Blessed Claude Colombiere put it, “I began to amend my life by frequenting Holy Communion after having tried every other way and failed. When I went rarely to Holy Communion I had no end of bad habits and imperfections which appeared to me insurmountable. I uprooted these by multiplying my Communions. Every time I omitted frequent Communion I felt my weakness more. When I received Communion again I felt fervor rekindle in my heart.”
The effect of the Eucharist isn’t automatic, though. It isn’t a vaccine, it’s a relationship.
Colombiere continued: “If I found that when going frequently to Communion I became no better, was still just as weak, just as prone to evil, just as indifferent about sin, I should conclude not that I ought to leave off going, but that I ought to receive our Lord with better dispositions. I should see if my confessions were wanting in sincerity, contrition, or purpose of amendment,” he said.
“If you are sinful, repent so that you can receive Communion often. If you are imperfect, go often to Communion that you may amend your faults.”
Mass is a weekly — or daily — Passover for us, but we should remember what happened after the first Passover. Of the 603,550 men who left Egypt with Moses, only only two entered the Promised Land. Likewise, Jesus says “many are called but few are chosen” and also, “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
What we receive in communion is enough to bring us to heaven; if we believe, if we pray, if we trust, if we persevere.
My communion prayer is this: “I must decrease, Lord, and you must increase; for you will turn my shame into glory.”