“FIRST IMPRESSIONS” by Jude Siciliano, OP
Harold Kushner is a prominent American rabbi and author. He has a PhD in Scripture and has published scholarly books on the Bible. Ordinarily the number of people who would know about him would be limited. Some of you may remember that he read a Scripture passage at Ronald Reagan’s funeral. But many people know about him because of one of the books he wrote, it was a best seller: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
This devout rabbi had a faith crisis when his son Aaron died from progeria, an extremely rare disease. It causes premature aging; his 14-year-old son had the organs of an old man. Notice the title of the book “When… Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Not “If Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
If bad things happened only to bad people, that probably wouldn’t disturb, or test our faith. We might even have a sense of satisfaction! But, we know this from experience, bad things happen to good people also: people who pray, come to church regularly, donate to the poor, are active in their communities. When bad things happen to them too, testing their, our faith is tested as well: a child dies from an awful disease, like the rabbi’s son; we lose our job during the pandemic; go through a financial crisis; a marriage breaks up; a good kid goes haywire; a loved one dies in war, or is crippled in an accident; and many other tragedies that stir questions in us – fill in the blanks with your own list. These things don’t happen just to bad people; bad things can happen to any of us and do.
When they do, we look for some explanation, some “logical reason” for the bad things that happen. Logic does not solve the problem. I’ve never liked the “logical” answers people come up with: “God is testing your faith”; “God will never give you more than you can bear.” The truth is we are left with mystery, not answers. But, we are not left alone.
As we gather today we are like a little “crowd,” and can identify with the crowd in the gospel story. St. John says they came, “looking for Jesus.” Seeing in John’s gospel implies believing. The crowd had been fed on the bread in the wilderness which Jesus provided for them. Now they come looking for more. Jesus says to them, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” As important as bread is for hungry people – Jesus thought it was important, he fed them bread – still, we know more is needed in our lives than a full belly and clothes on our backs. We want to “see” more.
The crowds gaze stopped at the bread. They only saw Jesus as “the Bread Multiplier” – not what the sign of the bread meant. If you are not watching the Mass on Zoom today, but came in person to church, then you probably walked, or drove in at the sign out front, for example, “St. Mary’s Church.” You didn’t stop and gather around the sign. You came to where the sign pointed. We don’t stop and focus on signs, but follow where they lead us. Jesus accuses the crowds of stopping at the sign, not understanding what the breads meant. He also accused them of forgetting their faith history. The disciples and other devout Jews got it: Jesus stirred their faith memory. But just to be sure, Jesus explained the sign of the breads to them. When their ancestors were dragging themselves through the wilderness, with the Egyptian army at their heels, God protected them and fed them bread day by arduous day. And in Jesus, God is doing the same thing. Jesus spells it out for them, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.
The God who fed the hungry in the desert was doing it again and Jesus was performing signs to help them see that. Did they get it? There are other signs as well in John’s Gospel. A thirsty woman at a well was promised living water – did they get it? A dead man was raised to life – did they get it? And now a struggling, hungry people in a wilderness are being fed – did they get it?
“Bad things happen to good people”– and when they do, do we recognize the signs that God is feeding us in our wilderness and hard places? God has sent us Jesus, the “sign of all signs,” par excellence. God has heard us in whatever wilderness or desert place we find ourselves now. God hears even the longings we don’t name: our hunger for truth and goodness; our hunger for meaningful relationships or healed relationships; our hunger for holiness and grace; our hunger to make a difference for the good and not just be someone who is passing through life.
God continues to perform signs for us and feeds us in surprising ways – do we get it?… a surprise gesture of kindness from a friend, or even a stranger: a job that turns out just right for us; a word of forgiveness we have not earned, but we received nevertheless. Or, the moment out of the blue, when we appreciate our lives, and those around us and we realize it is good to be alive – do we get it? These and other signs we could name at this Eucharistic celebration: God’s presence with us when good things happen, or when bad things happen. God is with us giving us daily bread as God does at our celebration today. We will pray for that bread in the Lord’s Prayer.
We also know that we are called to be signs of God’s bread for others. We have work to do, feed the hungry when we find them. Let’s look around us: in our families, schools, at work, in our community. All require dedication and perseverance on our part. So again we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread… and help us be daily bread for others, signs to them that You have not forgotten them.”
Jude Siciliano, OP