For five Sundays, starting the last Sunday of July, we are taking the Gospel reading from John 6. We opened with the multiplication of the loaves and fish, and for the rest of the four Sundays we will hear the discourse on the bread of life. John 6 is a defining moment in the ministry and mission of Christ.
This Sunday we see the people’s reaction to Christ’s declaration and we see Christ’s response to this reaction. It is a good story for us to use to reflect on our own way of reacting to revelations in our life and the challenges these revelations pose.
To be honest, I had written three other articles for this Sunday, but at some point I “abandoned” each article and started a new one. These “abandoned” articles became too long and convoluted. This shows us how difficult it is to present this issue in a clear and concise manner.
Allow me to suggest three thoughts to reflect on. The three are: one, Christ’s declaration of the truth of his identity and mission; two, the people’s reactions, which are “murmuring” and the “put-down”; and third, Christ’s response with authority to the reaction, showing deeper fidelity to his authentic self.
The declaration of Christ clearly states his identity as the bread that came down from heaven to satisfy all hungers and thirsts and to grant eternal life. He resolutely sets the initial condition to be his follower: to follow Christ is a God-given inspiration.
Christ sets very clear standards, clear because they are rooted in the truth of his authentic self as the beloved son of God and the bread of life. He places this at the center of his followers’ life, the bread of life, the Eucharist as the center of the Christian’s day to day life. The Eucharist as a sacrament, yes, but the Eucharist is a way of life and mission given to us by Christ himself.
The second point is the reaction of the people. There is a term for the “murmuring” in the vernacular that expresses the insidious, wicked effect of this reaction, the bulong (whisper, murmur) brigade.
The bulong brigade connotes intrigue and malice. Those who engage in it hide behind anonymity and secrecy. It is hard to deal with the bulong brigade because they play by unclear rules or no rules at all.
This is one of the attractions and dangers of the internet, of the social network media. People can engage in another form of bulong brigade. While they may reveal or shout out, they may hide behind anonymity or, worse, a false identity.
The “put-down” reaction reveals the bias and prejudice people have in dealing with people who speak the truth. Perhaps the truth disturbs their equanimity or false sense of peace. Worse, people may accept the message or the truth, but because of the messenger they reject everything and throw the baby out with the bath water.
It is the classic fallacy of “ad hominem.” If the argument is too compelling, attack the person; if the message is so powerful, kill the messenger.
The response of Christ to these reactions teaches us well that when we face adversity we have two basic choices: to give in to the pressure or to define ourselves more clearly and deeply.
As I shared in a previous article, the widow of Evelio Javier said during his funeral Mass almost 27 years ago, with reference to Don Quixote, “If you tilt at windmills, they will either crush you or cast you among the stars.”
Let me invite you to further reflect on this last and third point. With your kind indulgence, allow me to reflect on it from the perspective of a recent experience.
I had disengaged just a few weeks ago from a major project I was asked to take part in. I do not want to go into the details, but to make a long short, I fell victim to the bulong brigade. Worse was, this bulong brigade strategy made me realize that while I had seemed to move on from a similar experience over six years ago, the pain of the wounds inflicted then and now sent me into days of depression.
One of the things my late spiritual director taught us was that while God and his mission did not expect us to be free of personal issues and concerns, the ministry asks us to be functional despite the personal issues and concerns we are going through. So no one, I think, saw the pain I was going through for several days.
The same spiritual director also taught us that when we go through these down swings, it is important to stay with the feeling. This wise counsel always bears fruit. In the midst of this pain I went through, God made his loving, providential presence felt.
One early morning as I was walking around praying the rosary, I read a small poster hanging in my bedroom. It was a gift of the parents’ organization of the Ateneo High School for my birthday 15 or 16 years ago. It was a song they composed and sang at my birthday celebration, which summarized what Ignatian or Jesuit formation I had envisioned for their sons.
Lovingly, providentially present
This started my upswing. It was this small poster I had with me, hanging either in an office of mine or now in my bedroom, that made me realize this central grace of my life: God is a God who is lovingly, providentially present all the time.
This was the same grace that made me start, in 2003, my journey back to my mission to form teachers; the journey that led me out of Ateneo and out of being a Jesuit to do the work I do now with public school teachers.
Then a few days later, as I was working out something for the daughter of a friend in Ateneo, the secretary of the office I had to contact sent word that her son, the young boy I had helped when he was in the grade school where I was headmaster, had graduated from the Ateneo college. His father had died that year, and without a full scholarship his mother would have great difficulty sending her two children, a boy and a girl, to good schools.
Then a few days ago, my very first mentee sent me an e-mail and, again with your kind indulgence, I quote it here: “Thank you, ’To, for your prayers. I look at you and am amazed that not one ounce of your idealism and belief in dreams has been diminished, despite… life. Just as you awakened that in me 30 years plus ago, you now help keep it alive decades hence. Thank you, ‘To. I pray I can do your trust justice someday.”
In our moments of pain and doubt, God has a special way of making his loving, providential presence felt. During moments like this, you experience human pain and suffering, yet the power of God’s loving, providential presence is at its best.
The experience has clarified my sense mission and deepened my dedication to this mission to build caring communities in our school and to form teachers, supervisors and principals who will love their students into excellence and live their calling as teachers as a mission-inspired life.
“If you tilt at windmills, they will either crush you or cast you among the stars.” Choosing to taken on the mission, to tilt at windmills, is one level of freedom. To choose to be crushed or to be cast among the stars requires greater freedom, a deeper and broader level of freedom—the freedom that entrusts more and more to God.