The first reading is taken from the book of Exodus. It is a story that had been handed down verbally through a large number of generations before being formed into this textual version in the Bible. It is the story of the journey of the tribes after they had escaped from Egypt, being led by Moses in the desert from which eventually they came to settle in the land of Canaan which they took as their Promised Land. Life is full of ups and downs; the escape from slavery in Egypt seemed liberating, but then in the Sinai desert, they found life very difficult and the conditions harsh, to say the least. But things turned out well again when they found a new source of food in the manna that appeared there each morning for them freely to gather and eat. Our first reading (16:2-4, 12-15) illustrates for us the way occurrences can be interpreted as miracles, when there is no known explanation for them; in fact this manna was a natural phenomenon, known even to this day by the Bedouin in the desert; it is the resin deposit of insects after feeding on desert plants and it has to be gathered at dawn before other creatures get to it; manna is the Hebrew for “what is it?” Moses had lived quite a time in the desert and probably knew all about this. We now realise, as they did, that nature is marvellous – even miraculous – and is all the work of God, celebrated also in the selection of verses (3,23-25 and 54) in the responsorial.
The second reading, as in previous weeks, is from Ephesians. This week’s (4-17, 20-24) is a part of this general letter to Paul’s churches about how these Jewish and Gentile converts should live. It draws on the dichotomies, in Jewish thought between light and dark, good and evil, now and the hereafter; but it relates more closely to the Greek way of thinking as the this-worldly and the ideal world; what we might call the superficial and the sublime – in religious terms the natural and super-natural, in more modern speak the commonplace and the extraordinary. The writer thinks that the Gentiles lived in the natural and plain realm, but when they learnt about Christ they learnt to live in the supernatural and extraordinary – within the family of God; so he writes: put off the old and live with a new self. Today, some Christians make this same distinction between themselves and the ‘secular’ world, but maybe our experience of life should smooth out these differences, after all there are Christians who fall far short of the ideal and non-Christians who lead exemplary lives!
The Gospel is another section from chapter 6 of John’s Gospel (verses 24-35) which will continue on the following Sundays. This reading develops ideas after the feeding of the multitude in a way typical of this gospel; namely, there is a plain sense of the text which holds a much more sublime meaning which might easily be missed. For example when the crowd ask Jesus “When did you come here?” the text can also mean “how did you come to be here?” and then we can see the two levels of meaning; plainly, they had seen the disciples take off on a boat to this side of the lake and they came this way themselves so wonder how Jesus got here; but there is a deeper meaning about Jesus’ origin to which the answer would be, He was sent by God and is God’s Son. In this gospel miracles are called signs because they are not just what appears at first sight but have a far deeper meaning. The crowd had experienced the feeding of the multitude but had not seen the significance and deeper meaning of it. So Jesus points out to them that they should put their minds to higher things that are not perishable (superficial); but they should take in the food of eternal life which is that brought by the son of man – an expected future saviour sent from God in the fullness of time. If they would do this then they would have life – a share in the higher life of God by living a life of faith.