Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (John 6:27)
I remember attending Mass at a beautiful old church in North Philadelphia. The church was surrounded by large, brick homes that had once housed the city’s upper middle-classes and now served as a refuge for people who had nowhere else to go. Some were boarding houses, but most had been abandoned.
The church itself was in need of attention. Water marks decorated the walls and broken stained glass windows had been replaced by clear glass, creating interesting contrasts.
This wasn’t one of those inner-city churches that attracted suburbanites to venture into town on Sunday mornings; this was a parish of the neighborhood. Some of the people in the pews wandered in from the street, disheveled and distracted. Most, though, were intentional about coming to church; the men wore suits and the women wore dresses and hats.
Mass was as it is everywhere. The choir was small but their voices filled the church with the sounds of praise.
After Communion, one woman sang a meditation song. I was unfamiliar with the song and I don’t remember the words. What I do remember was the raw emotion with which she called on the name of Jesus; and that emotion still haunts me.
As she sang, it was as though the rest of us disappeared and she was having a private encounter with Jesus, expressing to him her deepest needs, desires and love. She knew Jesus was her only hope, her very survival, and she was not ashamed to admit it.
I was awestruck. When had I felt such a deep hunger for Jesus? His mercy? Had I ever let myself express my dependence on him so publicly?Jesus fed 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. And then he told them that he was the true bread; he was the food they needed to consume. At that, many walked away; the message was too challenging.
Pondering John’s gospel took me back to that church in North Philadelphia and to the questions that popped into my mind as I listened to that woman pouring her heart out to Jesus. Her singing was true love and devotion that sprung from her deepest need. She wasn’t singing to please the congregation but to convey to Jesus her deepest hunger.
Knowing Jesus in that way requires that I admit that I am needy, and that I believe that Jesus is the answer to my needs. Like the many who walked away, I can find it challenging to be that vulnerable. I want to believe that I can manage. And mostly I do—until I don’t.
The woman crying out to Jesus in that North Philadelphia church still calls to me, inviting me to stay in touch with my poverty, reminding me that only Jesus is true bread and that I need him to survive.