BY RORY COONEY
DIRECTOR, LITURGY AND MUSIC
Excerpted from Singing for a Change, in Today’s Liturgy, Volume 43, #3. Copyright © 2020, OCP. Used with permission.
As a church musician for over forty years, I have mixed feelings as these weeks of the John 6 gospels arrive. Whether I’m preparing for them or present to them, they can be an echo chamber, all sounding the same, dulling our receptors with overly familiar phrases and pronouncements. Their familiarity is amplified by our repertoire of “bread and cup” and “body and blood” communion songs and, of course, summer homilies that wrestle with the same problem. Homilists too want to say something liberating and healing, but it is sometimes difficult to be sure we are not re-reading last weeks texts. It’s a challenge.
But neither Jesus nor the evangelist was trying to give us a theological lecture. These are not partisan polemics about a ritual meal. John’s central metaphor, after all, is “living bread from heaven,” in other words, manna with a new twist. But all of these words mean something special to the author of the fourth gospel. They have a history and a context. Jesus knows that history but, more importantly, knows the Father, the God who created that history and whose life is the very life coming to people in the kingdom movement that Jesus is preaching. Jesus is opening up that history to a wider audience, with a more generous and compassionate interpretation, and as big a matrix as is available to its message: the whole world.
The manna matters. It was the food that made the Exodus, that identity-making freedom journey of the Hebrew slaves, possible. Manna was available to everyone, there was more than enough, so that no one needed to collect the manna on Sabbath. The manna was mystically egalitarian, so that when it was gathered by the community, “the one who gathered a large amount did not have too much, and the one who gathered a small amount did not have too little. They gathered as much as each needed to eat.” (Exodus 16, 18) As early as the writing of 2 Corinthians (8:8-15), Saint Paul interpreted this passage as endorsing the equitable distribution of goods in the Christian community. The manna was of such great importance to the story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery that a receptacle of the substance was kept in the Ark of the Covenant.
In Mark’s gospel, followed by Matthew among the synoptics, there are two feedings of multitudes, one in Mark 6 and the other in chapter 8. One happens on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, and the other on the far side, with a more disparate population, in “pagan territory.” It seems to be this tradition that John is retelling, as he introduces the story by saying that Jesus “crossed to the other side” of the lake. The storm on the lake figures into both traditions as well. The rough crossing in the storm may visually represent the tempest that brewed as the apostles and the early church wrestled with the issue of non-Jewish believers in Jesus, who were more and more a presence due to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas. The “meaning of the loaves” becomes a refrain of the frustrated Jesus in Mark, as the disciples miss the implications of freedom, God’s abundance and providence, and the inclusion of “the other side,” and seem to cling to visions of full bellies and possibly seats in a restored kingdom that would replace Rome. The misunderstanding becomes no less an issue in John, as Jesus, the living manna sent by the Father from heaven, is also the bread of liberation, of abundance, and of equality. Given to us in the Eucharist as a sign, it is nevertheless the essence of faith that belief in Jesus is the beginning of eternal life. This belief is not merely adherence to a set of precepts. It is a life lived in love, that is, giving one’s self for the life of the world, united with Jesus the Messiah.
Monday is our patronal feast, the feast of Ss. Anne and her husband Joachim. As we celebrate and walk through these John 6 weeks together, let us remember that the manna matters, the “bread of life from heaven,” and not miss “the meaning of the loaves” when we gather to remember Jesus at the table of the Lord.