Joy and Hope
August 8, 2009
A meal when life and love is shared
In recent Sundays as well as those to come we will hear from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John. This chapter presents us a beautiful reflection on the mystery of the Eucharist. It is worthwhile to read the whole chapter in a single sitting so as the church continues its Sunday reflections on this rich text one can understand the unfolding drama. I would like to offer some thoughts taken from the text chosen for the 17th and 18th Sundays, John 6.1-35.
The Lord Jesus said to those who were following him: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (Jn. 6. 27)
Jesus said this after he had multiplied the loaves and the fishes to nourish around 5,000 people. He criticized them because they were only looking for food. Now this was not necessarily a bad thing. Even Jesus was concerned when such a large group was hungry. That was why he performed the miracle producing an abundance of food. So much so that there were 12 baskets left over.
Jesus’ sharp words were spoken because these followers were only looking to fill their stomachs. He wanted to fill their souls. They had eaten of the bread and fishes but had failed to see the sign. They were so focused on the food they did not recognize the one with whom they shared it.
We are all familiar with the “happy meal” offered for children, usually an assortment of small food items and toys for children. We have heard of meals on wheels, hot food delivered to shut-ins. There are the early bird meals, the healthy meals, frozen meals. One restaurant offers the fourth meal, something to eat between dinner and breakfast.
Our culture is perhaps most defined by the fast food meal. It is considered a cultural and economic achievement that American fast food restaurants offer this cultural innovation in almost every country of the world. We will usually hear in the evening news when a McDonalds or a Burger King opens for the first time in some exotic foreign capital of a country whose name we cannot pronounce nor locate on a map.
In all these instances, the most significant cultural innovation is that the word “meal” only refers to the food. Is that a meal? Is it only about the food? Unfortunately in many cases it is. It is only about the food.
The more traditional understanding of the word “meal” is the coming together of people, usually family and friends to share a meal. A meal, to be a meal, was always shared among others. It was not just the food. It was also the conversation, the connection, the chance to come together and nourish one’s body and soul.
Such occasions have become rarer in our contemporary culture. I remember a startled young adult when I mentioned that my family had common meals several times during the week when we were young. In her experience growing up, such moments were extraordinary, only for special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For many children and young people, the meal is only about the food. This is what they believe because it was what they were taught. It was the example given to them.
Jesus reminds us: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” When we hear these words, we are reminded of the Eucharist, as we should be. Jesus later in the same discourse announces clearly, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6.35). This saving bread, the body of Christ, is found in this sacrificial meal.
In the Mass is offered to us more than simple bread. He offers himself. The Lord Jesus wishes to nourish our souls. We are called to recognize the One who offers us the bounty of his love. The church is not a fast food restaurant. This is not a “get it, eat it and go” kind of place. We come to share a meal in the fullest sense of that word. We come together to be in communion with the Lord Jesus and his body, the church.
This saving communion should not only be limited to the sacred time and place we set aside on Sunday, the Lord’s day. What we do at the altar of sacrifice, our celestial banquet table, should also find its place in every meal. We should not work just for food, but to share life with our families and friends. We need to create regular occasions and commit ourselves to those moments when we can share a meal together as family and in fellowship with others.
There is an emptiness in the human heart that will not be filled by a “happy meal.” It is only filled by a common meal, a meal when life and love is shared. Jesus does that for us in the marvelously mysterious way at the eucharistic table of the Mass. We are called to do the same around the domestic tables of our homes.