Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
Have you ever attempted a “trust fall”? It is a team-building exercise in which one blindly falls back trusting that their partner or teammates will be there to catch them. Sounds easy enough? Not! At the crucial moment when we are supposed to let go, something in our brain tries to stop the body from falling. In truth, it takes a deliberate effort to break through this barrier; a wall that separates what we can see (and feel) from the temporarily invisible beautiful reality that awaits us on the other side. This week’s readings invite us to take a journey to a special place, a wilderness of sorts, beckoning us to fall back into the arms of our Loving God without reservation.
In Exodus, the question of faith and trust underscores the Israelites’ epic journey in the wilderness. After their harrowing escape from Egypt, the Israelites have, once again, become discontent. Like children, they grumbled against Moses, “Would that we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine” (Ex 16:3)! Their response to their newfound freedom seems juvenile, considering what great miracle God has just accomplished for them! When they encounter hardships in the wilderness - thirst, hunger, fear, uncertainties, and all the discomfort and inconveniences of being migrants - they immediately fall back onto what they know, pining for their old way of life, albeit the life of slavery. However, God is a very patient parent who, over and over again, proves His faithfulness and unconditional love to His people. Thus, He provides bread in the morning and meat in the evening so that all “will know that I, the LORD, am your God'' (Ex 16:12). The bread from heaven is revealed after the dissipation of the morning dew: “On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, ‘What is this?’ for they did not know what it was” (Ex 16:15). Are they in awe? Excited? Surprised? Afraid? Apprehensive? Disappointed? What would be our reaction to this mysterious occurrence? It turns out that many of us are as stiff-necked as the Israelites. We question what we cannot see and are easily discouraged by new challenges; however, faith tells us to bear our complete vulnerability before God and only then can we fully receive what God has in store for us. As the Israelites learn to trust God throughout their journey in the wilderness, we, too, must journey through the wilderness of our heart to the doorstep of our loving God, to receive the only food that we need, “ the bread which the LORD has given [us] to eat” (Ex 16:15).
This story of faith and trust continues to unfold in the Gospel of John. After witnessing the many miracles performed by Jesus, particularly the miracle of the loaves and fish, the crowd keeps pressing Jesus for a sign: “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” (Jn 6:30-31). The great miracle of manna has been firmly imprinted onto the collective memory and wisdom of the Israelites, and for them, that is one of the greatest signs of God’s presence. They can “see” God through the nourishment that physically sustains their ancestors in the desert; but they don’t know Jesus, whom after all, is only a carpenter’s son from Bethlehem, “although you have seen [me], you do not believe” (Jn 6:36). Jesus understands their blind spot, therefore, he tells them not to worry about food that perishes but “the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give” (Jn 6:27). Jesus is revealing a great mystery about himself and his mission in this world: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (Jn 6:36). Jesus is the bread from heaven that can sustain us; mind, body, and soul. Jesus walks among us, works among us, and most of all, gives himself up so that we may have life. Those who hunger will always treasure the taste of bread, but those who hunger for God will be completely satisfied and content with the true “bread of life”, that is, Jesus the Son of God (Jn 6:35).
At every mass, we have the privilege of partaking in the body of Christ. The Eucharist not only nurtures and sustains us, but also unites us with God and each other. The Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life … [and] by the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all. ” (CCC 1324, 1326).
The Israelites’ wilderness experience is definitely a difficult one but without which they may never grow to know and trust God! Their faith has been refined in fire. It is also imperative that we go into the wilderness to encounter God in all our brokenness and limitations. On our wilderness journey, let us not fall back onto our old self, our “former way of life” - a life of slavery and self-centeredness - but come before God with all our vulnerabilities, trust that God will hear us, just as He has heard the Israelites’ grumbling (Eph 4:22, ref. Ex 16:12). Though our eyes cannot see, God’s powerful arms are there to catch us when we fall back.