Today we honour the memory of Saint Athanasius, an Egyptian bishop and Doctor of the Church who died in 373. Athanasius defended the Church against the Arian heresy which held that Christ was only a man and not divine. Go to Mass in many of our parish churches on Sunday and you will see that Arianism is still alive and kicking in the 21st century. As we honour Saint Athanasius as a defender of the Catholic Faith, let us reflect on how we witness to the Faith in our own lives.
We all know people who think they know everything, people who have an opinion on every topic under the sun, people who like to have the last word in an argument. And yet, no matter how much we think we know, there’s always more to learn. Simply consider the world around us, which most of us, most days, take very much for granted. Early cultures divided matter into four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. But over the centuries, scientists realised that matter was made up of atoms. Further discoveries identified smaller components: electrons, protons, and neutrons. Now experts have found even smaller particles: quarks, gluons, and bosons. There’s always more to discover.
You could say that Our Lord was saying something similar to the people we hear about in today’s Gospel. After having multiplied the loaves and fish for them, he asked the people to go beyond what they already understood about being fed. They didn’t need to be told what bread was, after all, bread was a large part of their daily diet. Rather, Our Lord wanted to offer them the “true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). This bread would feed their souls.
Our Lord has a similar lesson for us. We know that the Eucharist is no ordinary bread, but those of us who gather here at the same time, every day, can run the risk of making Mass simply another part of our daily routine, and not the highlight, the summit of our entire day. Familiarity might make us pay attention only to the physical Host we are receiving, rather than the sacramental presence of Christ who wants to live and work within us.
Just as the scientist expands his knowledge by spending time and energy studying the world about him, so we should spend time and effort getting to know Our Lord, and truly understanding what we do, and who we receive, when we consume that small wafer of bread in Holy Communion each day.