John 6:24-35, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I received this text from a friend yesterday. “Good afternoon, Father. I’m presently preparing kids for first communion. But I have a SpEd kid (special education) in the group who can’t follow what’s happening. P’ano ‘yan, Father?” Now, this is a very kind person and a dear friend. Out of the goodness of his heart, he volunteers to catechize children in his parish. Nevertheless, I also know very well that my friend can be quite the rigorist as a Catholic. So I texted back: “What do you think Jesus would do in such a case, my friend?” He replied a few minutes later: “I don’t think she should be deprived of the experience, Father. But how do I prepare her (to receive Jesus)?” Now, if I know my friend, he was again working off of a mental check-list that most probably said: “The candidate for communion must show relative capacity to believe in one, triune God, in Jesus Lord and Savior, in transubstantiation by the Holy Spirit, in the Real Presence of Christ in bread and wine, in eternal life, in the sacrament of reconciliation which must always precede holy communion, etc.” Well, yesterday, God threw him a nice curve ball: a “SpEd girl”, who in my book, is an 8-year-old angel on earth, hands down.
My friend made me realize yet again that you and I—all of us—we can often be more desperate for the “things of God”, than for the “God of things”. We can often be more desperate for what we think are the rules of the Church of God, than for the God of the Church himself; more anxious over the liturgy of God, than for the God in the liturgy. And I wonder, if it’s very far away that we look for the blessings of God more than the God of blessings himself, for the graces of God than for the Grace himself, for the signs of God more than the God of signss.
I’ve been directing one-on-one retreats these past six months. I’ve seen how retreatants go into a very dry spell in prayer. Like, all of a sudden, they stop feeling God—like God is not there, or that God may be there, but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything, let alone saying anything. They spend many excruciating hours wondering why everything seems to have turned into a desert. Then, at just the right moment, it hits them: “No wonder I’ve felt spiritually dry, Fr. Arnel. I’ve been desperate for the consolations of God more than God himself who is the source of consolations.”
Now that for me is what Jesus is pointing out in today’s Gospel. “You are looking for me,” he tells the Jews, “not because you saw signs of the presence of God in me, but because your needs were filled: you ate the loaves. You hunger for the miracles of God, like your ancestors were desperate for bread in the desert. But the presence of God himself, beyond his miracles—you still do not see. God himself who is your deepest nourishment, your bread of life, beyond the miracles—you still do not see. And least of all, God as having become a human person with whom you can be friends and fall in love, miracle or no miracle—you still do not see.”
But you know what, my dear sisters and brothers, if I know him, the Lord doesn’t take it against us that our desire for his gifts often get in the way of our desiring the Lord himself. But I bet, he wishes just the same, that we’re able to finally make the crossing from gifts to Giver of gifts. I remember watching my very young nephews one Christmas Eve. After Noche Buena, they run for their presents under the tree. They grab one, tear away the giftwrap like there’s no tomorrow, demolish the box, and out comes the toy. Then they go for another present, then another, and another. Pretty soon, the kids are surrounded with toys, they’re wrapped in them, in fact. Then I remember, kuya suddenly yells, “Hey, where’s our hug?” And only then do the kids tear themselves away from the “blessings” in order to go back to the “bless-ers”. But then they’re back to their toys soon enough. We can only hope that as our kids mature, they’re able to make that crossing from gifts to giver of gifts. But like God, we don’t take it against them while they’re still stuck on the other side of the bridge.
To yearn for God himself, what’s that like? Maybe it’s like yearning for someone very dear who’s far away or who’s passed on? Maybe it’s like saying, “If only dad were with me now, or mom, or my spouse. They don’t have to give me anything, even less, do anything. Just to have them here again, just their presence so I can hug them again, hold their hand, tell them how much I miss them….” Maybe that’s what yearning for God himself is like. Or maybe, it’s like the yearning of the dying, who have stopped praying for God’s miracle—not that they’ve lost hope in God, but that they’re now totally dependent on God himself, more than his miracles—so that whatever God wants, wherever God wants to take them, bahala na. Basta nandyan Siya. Basta nandyan Siya.
Now, I don’t know why, but I notice that desperation for God himself, beyond his miracles—it often entails the experience of a desert, of desertedness, of deep thirst that no waterfall of worldly wealth can slake. Do we dare desire God himself beyond his miracles? And if we do, are we ready to cross that desert and become desperate for the Bread of Life himself?