John 6:24-35, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Israelites did not know what it was, those fine flakes in the desert that were like “hoarfrost on the ground.” And so they asked, “Manhu?”, what is this? Ano ito? This ano from heaven was ano for their hunger. Manna for the Israelites, ano for us.
Manhu is a word worth saving. We look at these flowers on the altar that Fr Jason has carefully arranged and we ask, “Manhu?” If they are just flowers, we wouldn’t bother to ask, ano ito, manhu. Fr Jason’s hands are in the flowers, just as the many kind souls who have offered these lovely gifts on the altar.
In today’s Gospel, the people, after having been fed, are looking for Jesus. Obviously, they are not satisfied. That little miracle of multiplied loaves was not enough. They are looking for more.
When they find him, Jesus tells them, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”
You can almost touch the heartache in Jesus’ words. He probably understands how easy it is for us to miss the giver for the gifts. But it is heartbreaking just the same, as any parent or lover or friend or any unappreciated giver of gifts will tell.
It is easy to miss the giver for the gifts. We need only lose two things.
The first is to lose our sense of gift. By definition, a gift is something we do not deserve or earn or expect, something we are not entitled to get. As children, we learn this early on. As we grow more independent and we earn and work our way from one summit to the next, the line between deserved and undeserved gets blurred, and we forget to be grateful.
It is heartening to see some Olympians these days acknowledge their strength as not entirely their own. They invested so much and trained so hard all their lives you’d think that they only deserve the honor, that their medal is theirs alone. And yet there are some of them who have never lost their sense of gift despite their feats of self-transcendence. Through hard work, they may have added speed or strength to their limbs but they know that their limbs, no, their very life is gift. They could not have given limbs and life to themselves on their own. No, even the very ground on which they stand is gift.
Another way for us to miss the giver for the gift is to lose our sense of sign. By definition, a sign points to something beyond itself. The ancients saw signs where we no longer see them. We moderns may be more sophisticated and learned, but we have become more prosaic, sometimes overly literal and empirical in our view of reality. We have chosen to dwell on the surface and the material and nothing deeper.
But signs are still everywhere. Rings to a couple are more than just ornaments on their fingers; they are signs of their love and fidelity. The sign of the cross is, well, a sign of our cruciform lives as it is a sign of God’s enduring love for us. Even this pandemic is a sign. It points to our mortality and utter vulnerability and dependence on one another. It points us to the truth of who we are not. Every loss is signed by our tears, and every death points us ultimately to the truth that life is a gift.
We can be the heartache of each other and of God whenever we are just looking for gifts and missing the giver.
Perhaps for as long as we can say manhu (what is this, manna, ano ito) to the things that come into our lives, the “what is this” will lead us to “who is this”, the loaves of bread to the Bread of Life. Perhaps for as long as we can mean our asking “manna, what is this”, there will always be an opening for us to see gifts and signs, a chance for us to keep looking for the giver in the gifts that come down from heaven.
*image from the Internet