A. Mothering Sunday
Historically, the Fourth Sunday in Lent has been observed by relaxing the fast. It has been called Mothering Sunday after the epistle, which says, “Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” A medieval tradition was to attend services at one’s “mother” church—usually the cathedral. A more recent tradition is to do something nice for your mother.
B. The Gospel
1. The lessons reflect the lighter tone. Today is the first Lenten Sunday on which the gospel does not have the devil or a demon in it. The gospel focuses on Christ, the Bread of Life, who feeds the hungry multitudes who are following him, illustrating how Christ fills our Lenten hunger with himself. This gives today its other name: “Refreshment Sunday.”
2. The gospel miracle begins with a test of faith administered by Jesus to Philip: “Where will buy enough bread to feed all these people?” Philip observed that the wages earned for two hundred days work would not be sufficient; Philip saw only the problem and not the solution. Andrew found a boy with some loaves and fishes; but this merely highlighted the problem of inadequate supply.
3. St. John gives some clues to the deeper meaning of the story. The Passover was near. Jesus had just crossed a sea and gone up a mountain. In the Old Testament, in the context of the first Passover, Moses led Israel across a sea and then went up a mountain to get the commandments. The multitudes followed Jesus because of his miracles or “signs,” just as Israel followed Moses because of the signs and wonders he performed in Egypt. This all suggests that St. John wants us to see Jesus as a new Moses.
4. Jesus “tested” Philip to see whether Philip understood the connection between Jesus and Moses, between the manna that God provided for Israel in the wilderness and what Jesus might do in this empty place. Like Moses, Jesus led the multitudes to a place where there was no food in order to reveal God in a new way.
5. God obviously reveals himself though miraculous signs that rescue people from discomfort right now; but God wants a deeper relationship that requires enduring faith—faith that perseveres when there is no miracle. Or, better, faith that sees through the miracle; that sees the giver and not just the gift. The word for miracle is the gospel means, literally, “sign.” One will not understand the sign unless one understands what it points to.
6. At the end of Israel’s wilderness experience, Moses explained why God led Israel to, and through, the desert:
You shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
C. The faithlessness of Israel
1. Neither the manna story nor the feeding miracle had a happy ending. The constant murmuring of Israel kept the entire adult population, save two, from entry into the Promised Land. If we read on in John 6, we discover that Jesus, having attracted the multitudes with signs, proceeded to repel them with a very difficult sermon. The essential point of the sermon was that the people should not seek the food; they should seek the giver of the food. They should see the One to whom the food pointed. As Jesus said,
I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst (John 6:35).
2. After the sermon, in a verse propitiously numbered 6:66, we are told, “from that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more” (John 6:66). The people came seeking miracles; when they were given the Son of God instead, they went away disappointed.
D. The lesson for us.
1. We are supposed to learn from this pattern. St. Paul, commenting on the negative example of Israel in the wilderness, writes,
These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11).
One lesson for us is not to be surprised when our lives follow the pattern of Israel. We follow Jesus because our prayers are answered or we experience God’s presence. We follow for a while and, to our great surprise, we end up in a place where there is no food.
2. Food is a metaphor. We are led to a place where we lack some needed or desired thing. We are disappointed or hurt. We expected or wanted God to give us something or act in some way and he did not. We feel spiritually dry and alienated from God and other people. We have second thoughts, just like the multitudes that followed both the old and new Moses. We contemplate whether we might also go back and follow no more.
3. The chief lesson to learn is that this pattern is normal. As Theresa of Avila was purported to have said to God at such a point in time, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!” In truth, disappointment, pain and “hard knocks” are essential parts of growing up. We cater to every need of the infant, but we expect the maturing person to deal with increasing levels of pain; to fight progressively harder battles with decreasing levels of aid. If you want to create an adult narcissist, make sure that, through elementary school and adolescence, every need is catered to and all pain and difficulty avoided. But if you want to produce a grown up, you must at some point let that person start to figure it out on his or her own.
4. God leads us to the barren place where there is no food because he intends to reveal himself in new ways. This requires that we grow up; that we come off the breast and eat solid food; that we learn to walk by faith and not by mere sight and sense. When God leads us into such a test, he is also saying that we are able to handle it. God tests us because he thinks we have what it takes to pass the test. As 1 Corinthians says,
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted [or “tested”] beyond what you are able, but with the temptation [or “test”] will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (10:13).
5. Another lesson to learn is that the Christian life is full of paradox; what we think is going on is often the opposite of what is really going on. Thus, the cross, the instrument of death, is really the means of life. It looked like the Son of God was being defeated. In fact, the Son of God was conquering Satan, sin and death. In the same way, the empty place is the place where we can find new sources of food. When we do not experience God’s presence in the usual and visible ways, this is opportunity for us to experience God’s presence in new ways. The Bread of Life is hidden beneath the barren surface.
6. Immediately after the feeding miracle, Jesus said to the crowd,
You seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life (John 6:26-27).
To labor for the food that endures, we have to want the eternal more than the temporal. To labor for the food that endures, we have to learn to look past the visible circumstances and obvious needs and see the presence and activity of God beneath the surface. This is the difference between mere bread and the Bread of Life. As Jesus said,
Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that one may eat of it and not die (John 6:49-50).