Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen I say to you, it is not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
John 6: 32-3
In the traditional view of Jesus’ time, the gift of the manna in the desert was identified with the gift of the Law, the way of life and of fidelity to the covenant with God. The claims of Moses were confirmed by the signs and gifts of the manna and the Law. So, the people ask Jesus to confirm his claims, as Moses did, with signs. But Jesus reminds them that it is not Moses who gave them the bread, but God. It is the Father of Jesus who saved the Israelites, who fed them in the desert and gave them the Law, and it is his Father who is still working until now.
For us for whom the story of Jesus has become traditional, it can be difficult to realize what was being asked of Jesus’ listeners: They were to recognize the work of God in one who claimed to be greater than the great teacher and liberator, Moses. Jesus tells them that He is the “true bread” come down from heaven – a gift of God that transcends the very foundation of their belief.
It is tradition that describes what we sometimes call our “deep story.” Whatever our hunger for the knowledge and love of God, our capacities to come to know are limited by our human capacities and the shortness of or individual lives. As a people and a race, we come over the ages to a shared, collective wisdom which gives us a knowledge of what it means to be human that we could never attain individually. Yet, the communal tradition and wisdom is a gift of God; it is not God. We are to humbly receive and appropriate the wisdom of the tradition, but we are also, as the Psalms repeatedly tell us, to “sing a new song to the Lord.” (Psalm 96: 1; 98: 1). In his teaching in today’s gospel, Jesus tells his listeners that he himself is the bread from heaven, the Way to the Father. He also, shockingly perhaps, says that this bread from heaven “gives life to the world.” He is not a gift for a certain group or race, but is rather life for all who will receive him. The love and life of God is a universal gift.
While our traditions give us a home in which we can come to know God, as human creations they also tend, over time, to become narrow and rigid, to reinforce our tendencies toward prejudice and cultural superiority. The transcendent wisdom of the traditions can become subservient to ways that we see ourselves as special and set apart from the lesser human peoples who surround us. How is it, for example, that the revelation of Jesus, a Jew, became identified with European culture? How is it that what many Christian missionaries exported to the developing world was more European culture than the bread of God “who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”? Perhaps it is the very same way in which those listening to Jesus in today’s gospel tended to forget that it was not Moses but God who gives the true bread from heaven.
It is within the wisdom of the great traditions that we are formed, reformed, and transformed as distinctively human persons. But the practices and the teachings that constitute those traditions must always be animated by our hunger for “the true bread from heaven,” by our “hunger and thirst after righteousness.” A tradition is living to the degree that it is appropriated uniquely in the hearts and minds of its adherents. For us, the tradition mediates to us the bread of God, but it is Jesus himself who is the bread and the Way.
Now it is the nature of love always to give and to take, to love and to be loved; these two aspects are found in everyone who loves. Christ’s love is both avid and generous. Although he gives us all that he has and all that he is, he also takes from us all that we have and all that we are and demands of us more than we can accomplish. His hunger is incomparably great: He consumes us right to the depths of our being. . . .
Jesus’ love of us is so noble that at the very moment it consumes us it also wishes to nourish us. Although he absorbs us completely into himself, he gives us himself in return, together with a spiritual hunger and thirst which which makes us want to savor him eternally. To satisfy our spiritual hunger and heartfelt affection, he gives us his body as our food, and when we eat and consume it with fervent devotion, his glorious, warm blood flows from his body into our human nature and into all our veins. In this way we become inflamed with love and heartfelt affection for him, and our body and soul become thoroughly flooded with longing and spiritual savor. He thus gives us his life full of wisdom, truth, and instruction, so that we might follow him in all the virtues. He then lives in us and we in him. He also gives us his soul with its fullness of grace, so that we might always stand firm with him in love, in virtue, and in the praise of his Father. Above all this he reveals and promises us his divinity for our everlasting enjoyment. What wonder is it, then, if those who experience and savor this should break forth in cries of jubilation?
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, II, B