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: 32-2
In Jewish understanding, the manna, the continual nourishment, that God gave to the people through Moses was identified with the gift of the Law, Torah. It is natural then that the people ask Jesus for a sign to prove that he somehow surpasses that gift (Francis J. Moloney, SDB, The Gospel of John, p. 212). Jesus reminds the people that the gift of Torah is a gift not of Moses but of God. He then tells them that he himself is truly the gift from God, the bread of life.
As we deepen our celebration of the Easter Season, we are drawn by the gospel of John into quite difficult and mysterious spiritual territory. It is somewhat possible for us to understand how the Law is a light for our path and a way for our lives. As the manna in the desert which kept the Hebrews alive, so the prescriptions of the law can, if followed, give us a measurable way to appraise our lives and to reckon our righteousness. Even though we may find ourselves failing often, we have a concrete ideal to which to return.
Jesus, however, says that it is not the law but he himself who is “the true bread.” If we believe in him and receive him as our bread, we shall never hunger and never thirst. As Jesus says to the Samaritan Woman two chapters earlier in John’s gospel: “. . . whoever drinks of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4: 14). As great a gift as was the Law, it is external. It engages our will at a level that exceeds our capacities, and so all our attempts to assuage our internal hunger and thirst by conforming to the law will continue to leave us, in our deepest core, hungry and thirsty. Jesus, however, is food and drink that animates and nourishes the life, the spring within us. The gift of God in Jesus is the gift of resurrecting the life that is most deeply and originally our own true life; Jesus’ life is the “spring of water” within us that is endlessly “welling up to eternal life.”
As a younger person, I lived by a unconscious image of my relationship to God. God was at a distance, a distance I was always attempting to bridge by trying to “be good.” There was always a fair measure of desperation in this attempt. I brought to it all of my own limitations and difficulties in relating to others. I would try to please God and to feel loved by God, but I wanted that to happen while remaining to a significant degree distant and hidden from God. What didn’t want to “be good” in me, as I understood being good, I would hide and dissociate from. In prayer and in deed, I would keep presenting to God the person I thought I should be, while shamefully hiding the person I often was, in thought and deed. As with human persons, I wanted the good feelings and effects of relationship without the threatening aspects of intimacy.
As long as our reaching for God is external, our deepest hunger and thirst remain unassuaged. We think that we want to be loved for what we do and achieve, even for our virtue, when our deep longing and hunger is to rest in God without reservation, “as a weaned child on its mother’s lap” (Psalm 131:2). To receive Jesus is to pass from the external to the interior path. It is to discover the light and the spring within. It is to know the truth that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) and that our real and total life can be “alive for God” (Romans 6:11).
To pass from the external to the internal, however, is a very difficult journey for us. We are made, since the fall, to eat “by the sweat of our brow” (Gen. 3:19). To receive the bread of life that is Jesus requires of us no less than a complete and continual conversion of heart, mind, and will. Compared to what is required for such a change, the hard, if ultimately futile, labor to keep the law is significantly more “natural” to us. To truly believe in Jesus is to be willing to receive the gift that God sends, the life which is always being given to us. Strangely enough, to live so receptively does not come easy to us.
In this vision he also showed a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and thought, “What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, “It is all that is made.” I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, “It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it; and everything exists in the same way by the love of God.” In this little thing I saw three properties: the first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God cares for it. But what the maker, the carer and the lover really is to me, I cannot tell; for until I become one substance with him, I can never have complete rest or true happiness; that is to say, until I am so bound to him that there is no created thing between my God and me.
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter 5