18th Sunday in ordinary time: Liberating faith
Ex. 16, 2-4.12-15; Eph. 4, 17.20-24; Jn 6, 24-35.
The Book of Exodus is not only the key to the entire biblical experience but also to our way of understanding and living the faith in our daily lives. Believing in God is either truly liberating or it doesn’t make sense. If faith is not liberating, then there is something vital that is missing that makes belief superfluous to daily life.
We live in times that demand a radical rethinking of our faith, which can no longer be seen as doctrine, or understood as intellectual notions to adhere to. The worst that can happen to our faith is if we fossilise it in past religious practices that are simply re-enacted. Strangely, this is how the public manifestation of our faith is being translated in our Church today.
Faith’s existential side is aligned to our daily concerns and queries. Both in today’s readings from Exodus and in St John’s gospel, the focus is not on the truth of doctrine, but on a hungry and journeying people. In the gospel, Jesus affirms: “He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst”.
We are risking badly when we still sell our faith as if it was about dos and don’ts or as if it was about what distinguishes us clearly as Catholics from other religions. In our country, the Church is still in denial about the radical existential changes that are transforming the anthropological landscape. Many today meet their basic needs in their own way and are more autonomous in what they decide for themselves, even if they still claim to belong to the Church.
In the second reading, St Paul writes: “I want to urge you in the name of the Lord not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live”. The issue of whether our life and how we are living it has a purpose or not is not a simple philosophical question. Life can relatively easily lose its aim. When that happens, it opens wide the doors for what in the light of the Exodus reading today can be termed as ‘wilderness complaints’.
This is also the focus of the text from St John’s gospel, which is the sequel of last Sunday’s and which proceeds to picture the Capernaum crowds as having the wrong expectations from Jesus and from their religion. Faced with Jesus’s warning to “work for food that endures to eternal life”, the people ask: “What must we do?”
Jesus then presents himself as the bread of life, that “gives life to the world”. This is an echo of the Exodus reading where the community of Israel is complaining about their petty daily needs and at the same time forgetting about the freedom they had just achieved. It is the case of losing life’s perspective for the little pains that take over and become the major concern.
It is true that many times momentous pains absorb all our energy and make us lose sight both of the past and of the future. True faith can keep us focused and can enable us to grasp that ultimately life is bigger and deeper than any one moment or experience we go through, irrespective of how hard and painful it is.
This is the true and holistic liberation the Gospel promises and gives. Faith in Jesus as Lord of life can make us go beyond the limitations, distortions and precariousness of daily life. In today’s social and cultural context, we cannot afford to give in to the same Israelite temptation to lament for the security we once enjoyed in the regime of Christendom. We can neither fall prey to the temptation of nostalgia, nor find refuge in our religious cocoons which simply amount to the Marxist opium. Little do we realise that this is exactly what is happening with the present craze for an extreme traditionalism that is suffocating rather than liberating.
We are all journeying as a faith community and we all hunger and thirst for what gives purpose to life, especially in the dark tunnels we periodically go through individually and collectively. What counts most on our way is how we can still connect with the divine, how Jesus is mediated to us as liberator and how faith can be enlightening in facing up to all this. Basically, this touches on what feeds our hunger and satisfies our thirst. It is about what makes our journey of life adventurous, what ultimately gives purpose to our living and what also makes us resilient and enduring.