In the waning years of World War II in Germany, the genocidal madness of the Nazi regime was determined to wipe all traces of the Jews out of Germany and her conquered territories. Hitler, ensconced in his Berlin headquarters and in his growing paranoid madness, was determined to obliterate the children of Israel from the face of the earth. Little did he or his henchmen know, that right under their nose, some 5000 Jews were in hiding right there in the capital of the Third Reich. The fascinating story of how this was accomplished is narrated in Barbara Lovenheim’s book entitled, Survival in the Shadows: Seven Jews Hidden in Hitler’s Berlin. The author tells the amazing story of the survival of members of the Arndt, Lewinsky and Gumpel families. They were able to elude capture due to the heroic courage of German gentiles who risked their own lives to provide hiding and shelter for these seven Jews. One of the most difficult aspects of their sojourn in hiding was simply finding food to survive. With diminishing provisions as both the Americans and Russians were drawing closer to Berlin, these families found themselves near to starving. One evening, a stranger left bread made from barley near their hiding place. It was this simple gesture that spelled the difference between life and death for them. The story ends happily with their emancipation from hiding by the Russians. They eventually were able to emigrate to the United States and lived out their years and eventually dying of natural causes. Yet, they would never forget the heroism of their friends and that simple gift of bread that sustained them until they were freed.
My sisters and brothers, as we continue our reflection on the 6thChapter of St. John’s Gospel, the bread of Life discourse, our first reading taken from the Book of Exodus speaks of the Lord’s providential care for the Israelite people as they journey in the wilderness toward the promised land. Hungry and filled with regret having left the security of Egypt, they grumble before the Lord. The Lord in His loving kindness once again hears their cry and sends them food in the wilderness – a mysterious bread-like substance called manna, to satisfy their hunger and save them in their journey.
This reading is a perfect segue for our Gospel selection from John. The 6thChapter of John’s Gospel, as you might remember from last week, begins with the famous story of the feeding of the five thousand from the five barley loaves of bread and two small fish. John’s gospel, rich with symbolism, has Jesus offering thanks over the bread before distribution and miraculously these simple elements are able to feed the multitude gathered with leftovers filling 12 baskets. The number 12 is an important number in the scriptures and in fact appears in 187 places. It symbolizes fullness, completion and perfection. Of course, this story has dramatically captured the attention of its readers down through the centuries as it introduces one of the pivotal teachings of the Christian faith – the gift of the Lord’s own body and blood, the food of his living presence, in our hearts for our own journey of faith.
Though their physical hunger has been satisfied, the crowds continue to pursue Jesus. There is another hunger that propels them. Jesus knowing their hearts admonishes them and us not to ‘work for food that will perish’ but for ‘food that endures for eternal life.’ This segment of John’s gospel reaches its crescendo in the foundational teaching that continues to shape our identities and our faith down through the centuries, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
So profound and enduring is this teaching that we hear it echoed in the beautiful words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Apostolic Fathers who received the good news of Christ from the Apostles themselves. Writing in the year 110, St. Ignatius develops this theme of the Lord proclaimed by John the Evangelist:
"Come together in common, one and all without exception in charity, in one faith and in one Jesus Christ, who is of the race of David according to the flesh, the son of man, and the Son of God, so that with undivided mind you may obey the bishop and the priests, and break one Bread which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ."
The ‘medicine of immortality’ and the ‘antidote against death,’ that is indeed the power of the gift that you and I will receive in the Eucharist. The ‘Amen’ that we say to the Body and Blood of the living Christ, should be our heartfelt affirmation of our need for so great a gift, the food of eternity that brings us the freedom that can only be found in Christ our Savior. For that, let us give God Thanks and Praise.