"Our need for bread, and our ever resurging anxiety about it – and about everything which bread represents – should be at the heart of our prayer".
"Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”
At a first glance, this sentence sounds like a rebuke. Jesus seems disappointed by the people who -after being nourished by the loaves he had miraculously multiplied- went to such a great length to look for him, made the effort of getting to where he had gone by boat, on the other side of the lake. “You pretend to be interested in me, in my message, in becoming my disciples, -Jesus says- when in reality all you want is free bread”.
We could make a lazy actualization of this sentence by questioning our own motivations for coming to mass on Sunday, for praying, for being Christians: how much of our faith in God is driven by fear, need of reassurance, or simply habit. Most of the time our prayer and our practice tend to be superficial, minimal, lazy – until we find ourselves in need, feel vulnerable, are in a crisis – only then we look for Jesus, for God again – or for a higher power, or for anything that relieves us from our sense of hopelessness.
At a deeper level, however, we might discover that Jesus’ words are not a reproach – neither to his followers then, nor to us today. Rather, they are an invitation to acknowledge that however sincere and eager our faith might be, however faithfully we might try to put it into practice, we remain human – that is we never overcome the deepest causes for apprehension in our lives: our instinct of survival, our need for nourishment, our desire for safety, stability, and wellbeing – physically, mentally, emotionally.
If anything, Jesus’ words are an invitation to acknowledge all this, be aware of these concerns – not to deny or feel guilty about them, but instead fully embrace them in our relationship with God. This is implied by the fact that at the heart of the Lord’s prayer, we are taught by Jesus himself to say, with all confidence, in all trust, every day: Give us today our daily bread (Mt 6:11).
We ask for bread – and for everything of which bread is the symbol- to the Lord not only once for all, not just from time to time, but every day.
It has to be daily because it is not just a request, but more fundamentally an acknowledgment: our anxiety about bread is normal and the only way of dealing with it is not by denying it, or worse by being ashamed of it, but by changing it into prayer, educating it into trust.
The people who look for Jesus in today’s passage want bread from heaven:
“Our ancestors -they say- ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”
And yet they do not understand what this heavenly bread really is. Indeed, during the forty years of peregrination in the desert, the people of Israel did receive food from the Lord under the form of manna from heaven, and this bread did nourish them physically. But at a much deeper level, it was meant to teach humanity that there is another food we need just as much – a food for our hearts, that is the realization of the extent to which we can rely on God, be sure of his commitment and his faithfulness to us. The people of Israel -we are told- was ordained to gather only enough manna for the nourishment needed in a single day (Ex 16:19). Those who hoarded more than the quantity needed for one day found the manna infested with worms.
The thing that shocked me most at the beginning of the pandemic last year was the empty shelves in the supermarkets. In the following weeks, I remember being in Sainsbury to buy some grocery and hearing a mother asking her daughter to get some bread from the shelves – and when the girl went for the big loaves, the mother invited her to choose a smaller one not to deprive other customers: “Take just what we need”, she said to her. At that moment, in that contest marked by an understandable general panic, I could not help hearing in these words and echo of the Gospel:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Mt 6,25-26).
Our need for bread, and our ever resurging anxiety about it – and about everything which bread represents – should be at the heart of our prayer. The way we deal with our legitimate, human worries about it becomes the litmus test of our faith. Nobody can ever raise above it, not even Jesus himself. One of the signs of how truly God embraced our human condition, of the extent to which he really became one of us is that in the desert Jesus himself is tempted by the devil precisely about this, about bread - when he is hungry and the devil suggests to him to transform the stones into food. This is a power that Jesus did use when he multiplied the bread for thousands of people – as God, it was something he could work legitimately – why should he not dispose of the powers that he generously used for others to his own advantage? And yet he didn’t – because he knew that our human anxiety about food is not relieved by power, by wealth, by hoarding – if anything, the more we rely on power and wealth, the greater our anxiety and fears to lose them grow. The only remedy to this anxiety is calm, confident, stubborn, constantly renewed trust – not in ourselves, but in the Father.
Jesus always couples bread with the Father’s will. In the Lord’s prayer, the two are placed side by side: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven and Gives us this day our daily bread. The Father’s will is that we should trust in him – and nowhere we learn this trust more that in the way we manage our need for daily bread.
In the end, this is the true miracle – multiplying bread for the God who created the world out of nothing is easy. Teaching us to change our hunger and our thirst into trust in him is the real work which is never done once for all, needs to be resumed anew every day, until our last day.
To the people who ask him "What must we do to perform the works of God?" this is Jesus’s answer: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” – it is the work of God, the work done by God, the real miracle he works not just once for all, but day after day, whenever we dare to say: “Give us this day our daily bread”.