THE FOOD IS JUST THE BEGINNING

Author: Fr. Mike Byron
August 05, 2018

On Friday morning we celebrated the funeral Mass here for Jean Cullen, age 90, who was a long-time part of the Friendship Village community.  During the preparation process for that liturgy the children gathered together to speak about her life.  They were so sorrowful, and so grateful.  These two emotions go together.  When I asked them just what it was about their mom that was so special, they said, “She always took care of us.”

And then they told stories from a long time ago, when they were five young kids attending the Catholic school in their neighborhood.  Each day at lunchtime they had exactly 30 minutes to run home, eat their meal, and hurry back to school.  And every day when they came through the door of the house they found the sandwiches that their mother had already made for them, ready to eat.  There was nothing remarkable about food—at least not that they recalled.  But there was, in retrospect, something precious in the very assurance that there would be lunch ready to enjoy the minute they arrived home, because that’s what mom always did.  Always.  She knew what they needed every day, and she made sure that they never had to wonder about whether they’d have it.  It wasn’t the bologna and cheese or the peanut butter that mattered so much.  It was the love, and the security that she would always take care of them—through something as simple as a sandwich.

That memory is a wonderful parable, I think, to shed some light on the meaning of Jesus’ words in the gospel today (John).  The conversation with his followers happens immediately after last weeks’ story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes for the hungry crowd.  So amazed and grateful and desperate they all were that they followed him en masse back to his residence at Capernaum.  They wanted more from this prophet of God.  But Jesus is quick to remind them that they really aren’t so interested in Him—at least not yet, they are interested in the food—the bread and the fish.  And He tells them that if that’s all they’re seeking, they’ve missed the point of it all.  That miraculous feeding wasn’t an act of magic.  It was an act of love.

None of Jean Cullen’s children remembered this week how delicious were all those sandwiches prepared by their mom.  Maybe they weren’t all that tasty.  But they were there, because those sons and daughters were loved, and they would always be there.  When you see the food, don’t just see the food.  See the love.  

Today’s first reading (Exodus) recalls a similar event from the centuries before Christians, when God’s beloved people Israel were hungry and wandering in the desert, and he gave them food—the manna that appeared each morning.  God always took care of them.  And yet, if we were to read on just a bit further in this story, we would see that it wasn’t long before Israel started complaining about the menu, about how the food wasn’t good enough or varied enough.  They couldn’t see the love beyond the food.  They didn’t understand.  They were being taken care of.  We ought not to be too hard on those biblical crowds, though, because we often still struggle to understand, all these centuries after Jesus pointed out the problem.  Still we are tempted to get all caught up with the material things themselves rather than to recognize the love and care of God in and through those things, whether they be lavish or modest.

If Jean Cullen had prepared prime rib of beef for her children each day for lunch, that wouldn’t have mattered at all in communicating the fact that she was there to care of them, that they had a foundation of love that could be counted on, a welcome at home.  It’s what made her a credible, exemplary sacrament of the very love that Jesus speaks to us about today: “I am here for you always, and will take care of you.”  To understand that is what Jesus means when he tells us to “believe in Him.”

Don’t believe in intellectual prophetic propositions about me, and don’t believe in the signs that you may think to be proofs about me.  Believe in ME, that I am here, always.  

And now, of course, Jean is gone from our sight—as all of us will be one day.  Which is why we may never put ultimate faith in any single human being either, except to the extent that they point us to God, through their lives.  

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life—the one who came from heaven, and the one who alone can give you the food, the drink, the spirit, and the life that will never fail you.”

So whether the food is bologna and cheese or prime rib, whether the fortunes of our material lives are dazzlingly successful, or not so much, or even apparently failures.  Whether we are blessed with esteem in our community or whether we feel outcast; whether we enjoy great health or chronic disability, we are being taken care of.  To know that—behind whatever signs there may or may not be out there to impress us, this is what it means to “believe” in Jesus.  May we never lose sight of the love that is behind whatever signs that we may be fortunate enough to experience in our quest for God.  Signs can be real and true and important, but they are not the subject of our faith and our love.  Only God is.  


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