People have always dreamed about having unending life and never having to die. Most of us, for instance, have heard of Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer who died 500 years ago. Hearing rumors of a magical “fountain of youth,” he outfitted a ship and sailed to Florida, where he hoped to discover the secret of lasting life. Needless to say, he didn’t find what he was looking for, but Florida today is experienced—if not as a fountain of youth—at least as a comfortable retirement home for many senior citizens and older Americans. Some years ago the popular movie “Cocoon” was set in Florida. In the story, a group of retirees discovered the magical, life-giving properties of the water of a swimming pool which had been used by aliens from outer space. When the friendly aliens invited the people to return with them to their home planet, and promised them they’d there be able to live forever, most of the retirees eagerly accepted. People have always desired immortality. There’s a legend about an ancient Chinese emperor named Ch’in, who lived about 200 years before Christ. He’s best known for beginning the Great Wall of China; he’s also remembered for having an intense fear of death. One day he was informed of a mysterious island far out in the ocean whose inhabitants had discovered the secret of eternal life. Emperor Ch’in loaded several ships with costly gifts and sent them in search of this island. According to the legend, the ships did eventually arrive there, but the islanders refused to trade their precious secret for mere material items (Mark Link, S.J., Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, p. 89).
It’s a normal human desire to escape death and live forever; in the Gospel of John (6:41-51), we’re given the Lord’s response to this request. There is no fountain of youth, no alien planet where death is unknown, no magical kingdom possessing the secret of unending life. Jesus, however, offers us something far better: eternal life with Him in His heavenly Kingdom. We don’t have to search for it on the other side of the world, and we don’t have to purchase it with costly gifts. We merely have to accept it with open and trusting hearts, firm in our belief that Jesus alone can give us true life.
If Bible scholars had to choose one chapter from the New Testament that creates a lot of controversy or disagreement between Catholics and Protestants, many of them might select chapter 6 from the Gospel of St. John because it goes to the heart of our teachings on the Eucharist. Most Protestants believe that Holy Communion is nothing more than a symbolic action or a respectful way of remembering what Jesus did at the Last Supper. The Catholic Church, of course, teaches that in the Eucharist we truly receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ—and Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel clearly support our Catholic understanding. Jesus states very decisively, “I am the living bread that came down from Heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world.” We obtain this bread of life by receiving Holy Communion, and if we remain open to God’s grace, we have the assurance of living with Him in Heaven. This is wonderful news—but it doesn’t release us from our responsibilities here on earth in the meantime. As a result, we can sometimes become discouraged. For example, after faithfully proclaiming God’s word, the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:4-8) was opposed by most of the people and condemned to death by royal decree. He fled into the desert and then, overwhelmed by a sense of failure, desired to die. An angel from God brought him food and drink. Elijah nibbled at and sipped what he was given, but his heart wasn’t in it, so the angel had to tell him a second time to eat and drink. Sometimes we need to be nudged along and encouraged to accept the gift of life God offers. This is what St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (4:30-5:2) was doing for some of the early Christians. Even though they had received life in Christ, some of them stubbornly clung to their sins. Therefore, St. Paul urged them to get rid of all hatred, harsh words, slander, and malice, replacing these things with love, compassion, and forgiveness. Jesus offers us life—but in accepting it, we have to try to rise above discouragement and disagreement with others.
A boy named Jimmy was temperamentally light-hearted and somewhat irresponsible, so his more practical or down-to-earth father decided to have a serious talk with him. “Jimmy,” he said, “you’re getting to be a big boy and you ought to take things more seriously. Just think: if I died suddenly, where would you be?” The boy answered, “I would be right here, Dad—but where would you be?” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 132). This question stunned the father into silence and gave him something to think about, and it’s a question everyone needs to consider.
The Lord is always with us and inviting us to know Him and trust in Him, but many people make the foolish mistake of being too busy trying to get ahead here on earth to give any serious thought to the life to come. Jesus stated that those who ate manna in the desert died nonetheless; only those who eat the bread of life He offers will live forever. We have to beware of filling ourselves with the “manna” or temporary bread of earthly values. For instance, it can be a good thing to have money—but the desire for it can easily become spiritually disastrous. We need to have certain material possessions—but if we’re not careful, they can come to possess us. It’s good to be organized and efficient—but there’s a danger that our stubbornness or desire to control everything can block the workings of God’s grace. It’s an honorable thing to work hard and become successful—unless we fall into the trap of thinking that we only need to rely on ourselves, and not on God. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life—unless our enjoyment blinds us to the needs of our neighbor or distracts us from life’s ultimate goal of union with God.
Earthly values cannot satisfy our spiritual hunger. Good parents don’t allow their children to nibble on snacks all day long, or to replace nutritious meals with junk food. In the same way, the Church urges us to satisfy our hunger in healthy ways: by reading the Bible, learning more about our faith, being active in the parish, loving our neighbor, and deepening our relationship with Jesus through out personal prayer and our worship as a community. Jesus is the bread from Heaven, given us to satisfy our deepest hunger; He alone is the One Who gives us true life.