On Empty Stomach (Reflection on JN 6:44-51)

by Johanne Arceo

When the lockdown was announced, I found it quite interesting to witness how we are quick to differentiate our basic needs from our excesses. It has become common to hear the terms “essential” and “non-essential” in describing our purchases and activities. Faced with the looming uncertainty of this lockdown’s extent and the finiteness of our resources becoming more and more real, we did not rush to buy new clothes or lined up for expensive coffee. Instead, we bought food and medicine that can sustain and protect us and our loved ones. We spent our quarantined time doing things that nurtured our soul like reading books we have long set aside, artistic endeavors we have parked, or volunteer opportunities to serve those who need help. When it comes to matters of life and death, we somehow have a collective understanding of what is life-giving and what is not.

This seemingly mundane experience of the pandemic made me appreciate in a deeper way why Jesus wanted to be remembered as the Bread of Life, as this past week’s Gospels have repeatedly emphasized. Jesus was many things to his friends and the people he met in his ministry – a healer, a teacher, an exorcist, a political revolutionary. But when he shared one last dinner with his friends before he died, his last request was for him to be remembered as the humble bread and wine. I used to find this a bit odd and anticlimactic, especially that most of my childhood catechism introduced Jesus as a literal king above all kings. This pandemic, however, is helping me gain a deeper appreciation for Jesus’ request.

This pandemic surfaces the biggest equalizer across all socio-economic class – hunger. Whether one’s food comes from upscale groceries, online deliveries, or relief donations, governments around the world have made it a national concern to manage this ballooning problem of food distribution as they recognize how fundamental it is in keeping societies functioning. “Kung hindi man kami mamatay sa virus, mamamatay naman kami sa gutom!” and its varying iterations are the common cries of my fellow Filipinos. I began hearing it from the poor and those who abruptly lost their income streams. After a while, the middle class clamored for their share of ayuda too. When it comes down to the most essential matters of being human, we are all afraid of being hungry. The thing about hunger is that it does not end at being physical. It seeps into our cognitive capacity, our mental wellness, and our spiritual being. “No man can be a patriot on an empty stomach.”

So when Jesus searched for a human metaphor to describe the kind of love that the Father is offering to the world, he reached into the deepest core of his humanity and figured that the humble bread will do the job. Amidst our human struggle of hunger and death, Jesus comes to us and offers himself as the Bread of Life. The Father’s love incarnate understands our hunger and has “come down from heaven” to “live with us forever.” The Father’s love incarnate is for “the life of the world” regardless of one’s socio-economic class. The Father’s love incarnate is a person, and he seeks to be remembered in the gathering of friends sharing a meal on a dining table.

Whenever I hear friends lament “where is God in this pandemic?” or surmise that God is “punishing us for our lack of faith,” I draw reassurance from how Jesus described and modelled for us the kind of God we have. More importantly, he reminds us the kind of love that God has for us. God’s love to us is that of a father’s to his son. God’s love seeks to share in our suffering, and offers precisely what he feels we need. God’s love is whenever and wherever a community is gathered to share a mission. When I look at it that way, I believe I can say that I am surrounded by God’s love amid this crisis. I see God in families doing everything in their power to take care of each other at home. I see God in leaders and citizens who share in the suffering of their neighbors and offer whatever help they can provide. I see God in communities who are helping each other survive by sharing stories of hope and love. I see God in our communal desire to make sure that our future generations should not have to suffer another crisis like this.

COVID-19 reveals to us the full extent of our capacity as relational beings. In the deepest core of our human hunger, I hope we all find that we are truly with Love, of Love, and for Love.

Photo by Darren Langit / Rappler

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