This Sunday we continue with John’s gospel and the “Bread of Life discourse.” We hear once morehow Jesus sustains, uplifts and feeds us in ways that offer the promise of eternal life. “I am the bread of life,” he tells his followers. “I am the living bread come down from heaven.” It’s a message of reassurance and hope.
But the readings this Sunday start out with a very different scene: we begin in the Book of Kings, in the desert, with a starving prophet, Elijah, embarking on a difficult journey and pleading for death. Miraculously, God feeds him. He is given food and strength for his journey.
The road is often long and painful. But God provides.
Reading and praying over this scripture this week, I found myself thinking of others who have embarked on a difficult journey through the desert—and who have also been sustained by faith in God’s mercy, and trust in his boundless love.
I remembered, in particular, a woman I know: Sister Maria Hanna.
I have spoken of her in the past. She is a Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena, based in Iraq. Exactly one year ago, August 6, 2014, she and her sisters were forced to flee from their convent in Quaraquosh, Iraq – joining tens of thousands of Christians literally running for their lives from the horror and brutality that is ISIS.
They settled in Erbil, sleeping in open fields, sometimes beside open sewers. They lived in tents or unfinished buildings, often with no privacy. They met in basements or prefabricated huts with families to pray the rosary. Somehow, they held on to hope. Their mission was very simple: to minister to all the others who were suddenly homeless and displaced—to be for them the face, hands, and arms of Jesus. In spite of the fear and uncertainty around them, they wanted to help them “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”
Last month, Sister Maria Hanna marked this tragic anniversary with an open letter to her friends around the world
“It was not easy to accept the fact that we were displaced people,” she wrote, “almost abandoned by the Iraqi and Kurdish governments whose initiatives and acts were not up to the level we expected. The church took the responsibility for us, trying to gather and support the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were scattered all over the region of Kurdistan.”
Sister described distributing blankets, mattresses, milk and shoes to some 10,000 families. They opened two kindergartens; a year later, they’re now preparing to open a primary school. The aim throughout, she wrote, is to show the love and care of the church.
But they weren’t quite prepared for all the stress and hardship involved.Ten of her sisters, most of them in their 70s, died in the span of three months.
“Despite that,” she wrote “our ministry continues to be strengthened by the Lord, who blesses our efforts no matter how modest they are. Being occupied with such projects, we do not forget our mission to preach the word of God for our troubled people.”
And she explained what that means, in words that moved me so deeply:
“Since winter, some of our sisters have been preparing 400 children for first Communion in six groups. The last first Communion celebration was on July 12. Moreover, the sisters will start preparing another 100 children for first Communion in towns and villages in Erbil and Duhok.”
This is what it is all about. In the middle of despair and fear, in the middle of war and persecution, in spite of everything…there is the Eucharist.
There is the Bread of Life.
To those struggling to understand, to adapt, to feel some hope, these brave and selfless sisters are saying: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”
To those who don’t know where they will live, or how, or what will become of them, these sisters offer something incomparable and beautiful—a richness we so easily take for granted.
They offer the Bread of Life.
In May, my boss, Msgr. John Kozar of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, made a pastoral visit to Iraq and saw for himself the fruits of this extraordinary generosity and love.
“Again and again,” he said, “I encountered resilience and hope. The people want us to know one thing: They love the Holy Father. And they are grateful for his prayers. They want us to know they remain steadfast in their faith in Jesus.”
Msgr. Kozar remembered meeting one 12-year-old girl, who offered this simple but profoundly beautiful truth.
“ ‘They have taken our homes,” she told him. “but they will never take our faith.”
At a moment when so many of our suffering brothers and sisters around the world risk their lives to receive the Eucharist, to receive in a real and tangible way in the Bread of Life, we need to remember those words. They are a challenge to us. Here is faith that stands in defiance of death.
Here is a faith nourished by the Bread of Life
Beyond that: do we realize how fortunate we are? Do we realize how precious a gift we have been given? What we are about to do at this altar, the bread that will be blessed, broken and shared with all of us, is the greatest privilege we can know. But so often we make it so ordinary.
We shouldn’t. We can’t. In the desert of daily life, it is our food for the journey. Here is our sustenance. Here is our life. Here is, as the church teaches so beautifully, the source and summit of our faith.
Here is the Body of Christ, God under the appearance of bread. As I mentioned in my homily last week: it changes everything, and everyone.
As we receive today the Bread of Life, remember in your prayers Sister Maria Hanna and her sisters and all those they serve. Pray for all those persecuted Christians around the world who hunger not only for the Eucharist, but who hunger also for safety, and justice, and peace.
Let this sacrament reaffirm for us all God’s abundant generosity and goodness—what sustains us all through the desert moments of despair, fear or doubt.
“Taste and see,” the psalm tells us. “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”