The Catholic Herald (newspaper of the Archdiocese of Westminster in London, England) published an article on June 29, 1956 titled Prisoners have Mass in a mine. The story tells of the great faith and consolation received by the group of Lithuanian gulag prisoners during the time of Stalin. Deep within the mines away from the guards, the prisoner priests would celebrate Mass for their fellow prisoners.
These prisoners received the strength and consolation of the Eucharist in this most desperate of situations. While they were bound by prison they realized their true freedom comes from Christ. No walls can keep Him away. He comes to them in a special way in the Eucharist and through His grace and presence in the Sacrament they receive strength to face another day of hard labor and oppression. They know that He is the source of life and with faith in Him they can face any challenge.
Today begins the cycle of Gospel readings from Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel according to St. John. Last week we heard the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the fourth miracle in the Fourth Gospel. This context is important. The evangelist tells us that Jesus goes up the mountain and that the feast of Passover was near. In the Old Testament, mountains are places where a significant encounter with God takes place. Recall Moses going up Mount Sinai where he encounters the Lord and eventually receives the law.
The Passover celebrates the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In other words, it celebrates the saving action of God in the life of the people. In the feeding accounts, Jesus provides bread for the thousands gathered from the “five barley loaves and two fish.” As a result, all ate until they were satisfied; and there were 12 wicker baskets of bread left over.
In the Gospel account for this Sunday, we pick up from last Sunday’s reading. A crowd, apparently the one that was with Jesus at the multiplication of loaves, comes looking for Jesus. They try Capernaum but He is not there. Soon they realize He is across the sea so they go there. Engaging Jesus, they ask when He got there.
Jesus responds, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”
Jesus has already feed the people to satisfy their bodily needs. He is disturbed by their lack of faith or at least their lack of understanding. They failed to see the sign value, or “significance,” of multiplication of the loaves focusing rather on the fact that they had their fill.
In the Gospel of John particular attention is given to a select group of Jesus’ miracles. The miracles are called “signs.” They serve as a witness to Jesus, His mission given by the Father and His relationship with the Father. In this case, Jesus calls the crowd to open their eyes of faith. He then says that it is the Son of Man (Jesus) who will provide food for eternal life. This is the food that the crowd should desire. Jesus tells them that they should “work” for this food.
As the passage continues he says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” Here it is clear that belief and faith in the Son of Man is the work of God. Belief and faith are akin to food for the soul.
The crowd then asks: “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.’” The crowd asks for a sign but does not acknowledge the multiplication of the loaves as a sign. Another reference to Moses is given here. The crowd presumes the “bread from heaven” was given by Moses (see today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus). Jesus corrects this to say that it was from His Father. The Father, He says, “gives you the true bread from heaven.”
Here Jesus refers to Himself as the one sent from the Father. He is this bread that “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The crowd still does not understand, saying: “Sir, give us this bread always.” The reading concludes with Jesus making the identification explicit: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” With this statement he invites the crowd to share in the life He offers through faith.
Jesus is the “Bread of Life.” He is the “Bread of Life” both in His person, in His word and in His flesh. Theses three aspects are united but can be distinguished. Today’s portion of the “Bread of Life” discourse focuses on the person of Jesus. It is in Him that we have life. What is required is faith.
The story of the gulag prisoners’ faith in Jesus is seen in their desire for and their participation in the Eucharist. Even in the most trying of times, in this case persecution and oppression, the faithful find life in Christ. Jesus sustains them and feeds them with hope so they are able to endure and live.
At different times in life, we may face fear, confusion, suffering, even persecution. These conditions might seem overwhelming. They are forces that seek to weigh us down, to squeeze life out of us, and to starve us of hope. Faith in Christ Jesus is the source of nourishment for our souls, the source of strength for our minds and the source of consolation for our spirits. He is the bread that gives us life and sustains us in that life no matter what difficulties or challenges we face. No force is greater than He. No power can take that life He offers. All that is required is faith.
Yet, it is not only in difficult times that we have a need for Jesus. Surely our need is heightened in these times but it is a need that is always present. We all want to live and to enjoy the fullness of life. Jesus tells us: “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (cf. John 10:10).
Putting our faith in Him, learning from Him, and living in Him is the path to life in abundance for He is “the Bread of Life.”