If we aspire to communion with Jesus, we must fix our eyes upon the most holy life he lived in the flesh and follow the example of his divine innocence so as to become pure and godlike. Then, in a manner befitting us, he will give us a resemblance to himself. — Denis the Areopagite
Homer Simpson was in a ponderous fit. His daughter, the vegan of the family, had just challenged him on his diet. How could he eat innocent little animals, was her plaintiff question. He replied: “If God had not meant for us to eat animals he would not have made them out of meat!”
It is something to ponder indeed. We might just have to think about our living now and again. Life lives off life. It is simple and somehow brutal as well. We eat and to make that happen, something else ceases to live, be it plant or animal. Life lives off life, there is no getting around that.
Ancient cultures of hunters and gatherers had rituals that somehow honored and thanked the animal or the plant that was being taken. In a way, an apology was made. “I know you were alive but I need the meat for my family and I need your hide to protect them from the cold come winter.” These cultures had a reverence for the life they took to live day to day. As a result their rituals told of the creatures they hunted as it revered them.
Old Testament culture received its meat from the LORD. God had made and God had given and as reminder to his mastery over the beasts of the earth and the people of earth God had set some of them apart to not be touched or consumed by his chose people. These animals were somehow a gift and one returned of the flocks part of the gift, the best, to the LORD as an acknowledgement of ones place as a mere stewart.
But, says the Old Testament, it shall not always be like that:
Isaiah 11:6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
A time is coming, according to the prophet, when life no more destroys life to live. In eternal life, all will live off God directly and he will be their shepherd, their steward, their sustenance, their sacrifice, their food. God, in Jesus who is offering his flesh in our Gospel story, will be the world’s sacrament. Aside from the wisdom of God there will be nothing. (Jn 6:45) Aside from the sustenance God supplies directly, there will be no surviving. (Jn 6:51)
Manna, though it comes directly miraculously from the loving hand of the LORD, is eaten in the wilderness while one is wandering in self prolonged exile. Manna ceases to fall once the land of promise is reached. We eat the bread in this world for the length of our days as exiles by sin from the kingdom of God.
Murmuring and offense fill the air around Jesus. It is as if the wandering in the wilderness never ceased. (Jn 6:41) We are all somewhere on the other side of the Jordan. There, though God is present through prophecy and Torah, manna, pillar of smoke and fire, murmuring and rebellion is common.
Murmuring has its opposite in loving obedience. St Benedict, the father of western monasticism, strictly warned his monks to avoid it. Obeying is listening attentively and acceptingly to someone. It is necessary if the monk is to progress in holy life and only total trust and obedience can set that in motion. In modern terms this might not be a common experience or attitude. We do what the boss has said to but we do it grudgingly and without spirit. The person we actually obey in doing this is usually ourselves. The spirit of the monastery should be a spirit of pure love. In this spirit of love one is to make life work for others and not for oneself. One must let go of all one’s own interest and serve any of the members of the community gladly so that they might be served in love. Mutual love and self giving must be the spirit of the community if that community is to work.
Modern day people might well understand the meaning of murmuring as well. It is that spirit that never shows itself in the open. It is contained in gossip about how the church, or the office, or the shop, or even the family, works. It is contained in the subtle politicking that hopes to change opinions against people in authority one hopes to overrule by popular rebellion.
God is not immune to such rebellions as the books of Exodus and Numbers chronicle. Those who have been humble enough to learn from the Father and who are formed by the Father’s teaching are not on the side of the rebellious. (Jn 6:44-45)
By teaching, we might not want to imagine a classroom full of eager students. Israel in the wilderness was a teaching event and that event lasted an entire generation. Those who are heirs of Moses were taught there and those who not merely speak the content of the teaching but live it are the true heirs of Moses.
There is a double meaning in this passage for us to ponder. The flesh that Jesus is offering to the world, what is it? Is it his teaching? Is it his body and blood in the Eucharist? Is it possibly both at the time? Certainly, Israel ate manna in the wilderness to learn that the LORD provides even for wayward children that are as yet still on the road to learning how “wide and long and high and deep is the love of God and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that they may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3;18-19)
We are also still on our wanderings in the wilderness. Again, bread from heaven is sent. (Jn 6:46) This is Christ. We learn Christian life by our returns to the body and blood given for us. Every week, the bread from heaven — the food that will sustain us, instead of the dead remains of cows and carrots in heaven — is given. Every week we gather to not just receive but to remember the story and to gather as if the Resurrection of Jesus has just happened, as if we are on the road to Emmaus, maybe, as if we were gathered on God’s holy mountain where the weak and the strong, the hunter and the hunted now live without violence down to one another. God’s Holy Tomorrow is “today” when the congregation gathers around the altar
What will they learn there? How long will it take? What will they turn into if they faithfully come seeking the Holy LORD? Will it be a resemblance of the Christ?