Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 5, 2018
The Latin word viaticum literally means “with you on the road” and refers in Catholic tradition to Holy Communion given to a person on the point of death. The poignant idea is that this communion serves as nourishment, or rations, to be taken with us on the final journey of our life. In a certain way, however, each time we receive the Eucharist and participate in the Mass we are given “viaticum,” vital nourishment to sustain us on our journey through life.
I thought of this in the light of this Sunday’s first reading from Exodus that tells how God sustained his people Israel on their long and arduous journey from slavery to freedom. As they sloughed through the desert, the very human Israelites began to grumble against Moses and Aaron. They began to daydream about the “fleshpots” and “bread” they used to enjoy in Egypt, and moan that “you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine.” There comes a time when decent food under slavery looks better than the slim diet of freedom.
God is patient with all this and assures Moses that “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites…” To relieve their distress, God rains down manna, described as like “fine flakes of hoarfrost on the ground” and in the evening sends flocks of quail for them to eat. Later in Exodus we learn that even this “food from heaven” would not stop their complaints for long…
This Old Testament account is paired with the beginning of Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse from John’s Gospel which is the gospel selection for this Sunday — continuing the theme of bread and nourishment we had in last Sunday’s story of the multiplication of the loaves that leads into this discourse of Jesus. The whole point of the discourse is that we need more than “food that perishes” in order to sustain our lives. Jesus offer his very self as “food that endures for eternal life.” How do we acquire this “bread of God” as John’s Gospel describes it — this “viaticum” necessary to keep us fully alive during our life’s journey?
Some time ago I heard an interview on the car radio with a woman who was the head of a local chapter of the “Gray Panthers” — an organization that advocates for the elderly and fights “ageism.” The interviewer asked: “What exactly is the program of the Gray Panthers?” The woman replied: “This is our program for our people: 1. Something worthwhile to do; 2. Something to look forward to; and 3. Somebody nearby to love.” I have never forgotten that response — in many ways it is a good summary of the aspirations of all human beings. I think the readings for this Sunday that speak of “viaticum” — the kind of bread we need to sustain us in our life — poses for us the same question the interviewer posed for the woman in that interview but asks us to do so in the language of our Christian faith. We believe that faith in Jesus brings us close to someone to love. We believe that God has given each of us something worthwhile to do — using whatever talents and whatever opportunities open to us to serve others with gestures of love and respect. And we believe that, even though we might grumble now and then along the way, that ultimately God holds out for us a life of unending love and peace.
We can’t take such “bread” for granted. We have to strive for “the food that endures for eternal life,” as Jesus tells the crowds in today’s gospel reading. We need to pray earnestly for God’s help on a daily basis. We need the strength and nourishment that come to us through the Eucharist. We need to put aside as best we can the habits and inclinations that lead us astray, and, in the words of Pope Francis, practice the everyday gestures of love and respect for our neighbors that help build a “civilization of love.” This is the “bread of life.”
President Emeritus, Chancellor,
Professor of New Testament