It is a temptation that every father faces at one time or another - to think that providing for the material needs of his family can take the place of his presence in the home. Tired from a long day of work and sometimes frustrated by the daily humiliations of life, fathers can want to tune out their wives and children when they come home. They tell themselves that it should be enough that they provide their families with a place to live, clothes, food on the table and whatever else they may possibly want. In reality, their children want nothing else than to spend a little time playing with them when they get home, and their wive wants nothing else than a few minutes to tell them how their day went. No amount of material goods can take the place of a father's loving, attentive presence in the home.
God, our heavenly Father, does not suffer from such a temptation. Even while he showers us with blessings and provides for all our needs, he wants nothing more than to be by our side giving us the opportunity to love him. God never tells himself that he has done enough for us. Rather he seeks every opportunity to meet our needs. Nonetheless, considering every good gift that he could give us or every miracle he could perform for us, God wants nothing else than to give us his very self. Just as no amount of material goods can take the place of a father's presence in the home, so nothing God could give us can ever take the place of God himself.
The first reading is from the book of Exodus which chronicles how God acted powerfully in freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. During their forty year journey through the desert, they would often grow weary and complain. In today's reading, they are afraid that they will not be able to find enough food in the barren desert. Their fears and grumbling are understandable, and God wants them to know that he hears them. At the same time, how could they ever doubt that God would provide for them when they had already witnessed the plagues he visited on the land of Egypt and how he parted the Red Sea for them? Moreover, they had seen the glory of the Lord traveling with them as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Was it not enough for them that they were in God's presence and were witnesses to his mighty deeds? By leading them through the harsh desert with all its dangers, the Lord was trying to teach them that if his presence and glory were not enough for them, then no amount of food or comforts would be either. Again, God is happy to free his people and provide for them, but, more than anything, he wants to be loved by them.
Something very similar takes place in today's reading from the gospel according to John. Remember that last week we heard the story of how Jesus fed 5000 men with only five barley loaves and two fish. The people who witnessed the miracle followed him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to see if he would perform some other wondrous deed. They must have been thinking that if he could multiply loaves and fish then maybe he would start handing out other things like money and clothes. Whatever it might be, they did not want to miss it. Jesus recognizes right away what the intention of the crowd is. He must have felt sad to know that he was no more than a curiosity to so many of them. But he uses the occasion not to scold them but to invite them to a deeper level of understanding. What he is offering them is much more than bread or any other material thing. It is even much more than God offered the Israelites in the desert. He is giving them his very self - his flesh and blood. And the work of God is not miracles and mighty deeds but faith in Jesus who is sent by the Father to be his living presence among us. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God is the bread that satisfies us for all eternity.
We are not unlike the Hebrews who wandered through the desert in search of food or the people in Jesus' day in search of a miracle. Most of our time and energy are devoted to making a living for ourselves and providing for our families. We are all too aware of how helpless we are at times and how insecure our lives can become. When faced with our neediness, we have two choices. We can grumble, complain and despair. Or we can turn to God with trust, thank him for all we have, and ask him with confidence to supply us with what we lack. Whatever difficulty we may face, it is an opportunity for us to learn to rely on God and his power. God often withholds his help from us for a while so that we will learn just how much we really do need him. Then, in the nick of time, he rushes in to meet our need and assures us that he is always by our side.
At the same time, God wants to meet our deepest need, the most profound pang of our heart, which is friendship and union with him. Like a good father who does not allow the pursuit of material goods to take away from his loving presence in the home, God wants nothing else than to give us his time and his presence.
All things are ours if we believe in Jesus. Most especially, God is ours forever! We are about to celebrate the supreme example of God's self-giving love in the Eucharist which is the bread come down from heaven to feed us so that we may never hunger again. Let us approach the altar with confidence and faith knowing that it is nothing less than Jesus himself whom we are receiving. What more could we hope for? What more could we need?