Friday, August 3, 2012

Medicine of Immortality

Eighteenth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Face to face with the specter of imminent death does a wonder for one’s personal diet and way of perceiving food. Last Saturday whilst I was languishing in the hospital fighting dengue fever, I received the grim news that my platelet count had plunged by another 50 points putting me closer to dangerous limits. Without wishing to sound too melodramatic although it inevitably does, death had become a certain and imminent reality. Many thoughts and concerns flashed through my mind, including the dilemma of attending to unresolved issues, goodbyes I needed to say, unfinished business and responsibilities that needed to be handed on. The last thing I was interested in was my next meal.

And so, when my friends, who had been busy cooking up a storm in place of the hospital fare, asked me “What do you want for dinner?” I found the question humourously trivial. Something that seemed awfully important in the past, my daily meals that is, had suddenly become insignificant. Fr David then asked me in jest, “What would you like to have for your last meal? Nasi Lemak?” Under normal circumstances, that would be an offer I would never refuse. But under the present circumstances, I said the first thing that popped into my mind, “The Body of Christ.”

The answer surprised me too. Is this truly what I wanted? I found myself giving other answers. What do you want? I mean – what is your deepest desire? What do you really desire? Many would not hesitate to give the answer – ‘happiness.’ Love, attention, approval and recognition would also be on top of the list. In a chaotic world filled with strife, violence and conflict, many would be searching for peace. Some would, of course, want to be rich and live a comfortable life. There are others who will want to marry the girl or the boy of their dreams. Some people just want a way out of their problems – an end to their misery, a solution to their predicament, a second chance if possible. The list goes on and on. There are so many things that we want.

If we examine the things that we want, we will realise that our wants change with the circumstances of our lives. When we have obtained the thing that we want, there will always be something else that will catch our attention. Fulfilling our wants will merely give us temporary satisfaction. We noticed that when our lives are controlled by our wants and desires, there will never be an end to our dissatisfaction and complaints. No matter how much we may possess or acquire, it is never enough. If our only purpose in life is to satisfy our wants and desires, we will never be satisfied.

The Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, or more accurately against God, for leading them out into the desert wastelands where they were confronted with the reality of starvation. While in Egypt, they complained to God that they were not free. They seem to have made a short memory of things. Now at the slightest inconvenience they began to grumble over their predicament again, saying that it would have been better to stay a slave in Egypt where at least they were fed bread and didn’t starve. But despite their turning away from God and complaining, God heard them, and made a promise to their leader Moses. God said that he would provide food for them both in the morning and in the evening. God will provide for his people. This may have satisfied them temporarily but there will be other complaints to come.

So, what kind of food can satiate our deepest longing? The answer is given in today’s gospel where Jesus speaks of food and bread. He cautions the crowds not to look for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life. The crowds had witnessed the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and had become recipients themselves. Thus, Jesus was clearly aware of their motives in searching for him. They were not looking for him as such but as to what he could offer them. How wonderful it would be to possess an inexhaustible source and supply of food? They would no longer be hungry or in need.

But Jesus now explains that it is not simply physical bread or food which is being given, but the true bread of heaven is that which feeds the soul of a person.  It lasts forever. He wishes to raise their attention from their stomachs to their hearts. This leads to the beautiful, poetic and moving “I” message of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Jesus is not speaking of physical bread here but spiritual bread, bread that feeds a person’s spirit. Jesus is that bread. In the context of the Eucharist, this takes on an even more pointed and beautiful meaning, because Jesus becomes one with the physical bread that feeds us both temporally and spiritually. St Ignatius of Antioch used the following analogy to speak of the wonder of the Eucharist when he described it as “the one Bread which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ.” In this heavenly meal, heaven meets earth and earth meets heaven, and we encounter our Lord in a "uniquely intense" way. This is a concept that is so beautiful, so moving, so intricate that I don’t think anyone can be unmoved by it, if they meditate on it at all.

But we are like blind beggars, unappreciative of the treasure that we are given at every mass whilst continuing to clamour for things that momentarily satisfy our wants and desires but leave us hungering for more. How can we acquire a greater appetite for Christ? St. Paul reminds us in today’s second reading: “You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires. Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of truth.” What is the new self and new life which Paul is speaking about? The new life is the life in Jesus, the Bread of Life and those who partake of him will never be hungry or ever thirsty again. If our lives undergo a “spiritual revolution,” if we are able to die to our old selves – to our old selfish ways, and allow Christ to be at the heart and center of our lives, then there is no need for us to crave for anything else. If we have Jesus in our hearts, there is nothing more that we should desire. The problem for many Christians is that in spite of receiving Jesus, they still want more. This may indicate that they have not accepted the fact that he is the bread of life who satisfies our every want and need. We remain hungry and thirsty because Jesus remains in the periphery.

Appetite has always been a barometer of health. But eating in itself need not necessarily be an indicator that we are on the right track. Obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and a whole long list of ailments are evidence that we sometimes pay too much attention to eating rather than healthy living. The oft repeated adage, ‘Eat to Live, Don’t Live to Eat,’ proves to be a better guide in matters of food, health and life. Today, Jesus invites us to work for food that guarantees eternal life, medicine for immortality, an antidote for death. He is that food, that Bread of Life which should become our most important staple meal. Only when we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, can we truly say that we ‘eat to live’ and not just ‘live’ but to live forever.

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