Our Deepest Desire

bread-of-life-tabernacleOne of the most famous and insightful sentences in Christian history comes from the first page of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. As the book unfolds, Augustine describes his extensive experiences with unfulfilled desire. And so as if to give his conclusion beforehand, in the very first paragraph of the book he writes, “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” An insatiable craving, a psychic abyss, unsatisfied desire and desires, and the deep longing for a faraway land — all these point to and find fulfillment in God alone, despite our many failed experiments with all sorts of substitutes.

In John’s gospel Jesus describes himself with seven “I am” sayings. These are intentional literary allusions to Yahweh himself, who identifies himself to Moses as “I am” (Exodus 3:14, John 8:58). Jesus compares himself to light in darkness (8:12), a gate to a safe pasture (10:9), a good shepherd who sacrifices himself for his sheep (10:11), the resurrection and the life who conquers death (11:25), and the true vine who fulfills Israel’s destiny (15:1, Isaiah 5).

And just as he compared himself to “living water” that quenches our thirst (John 4), Jesus also identifies himself as the one who satisfies our deepest hungers: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (6:35). The ancient Hebrews ate miraculous manna from heaven in the desert (Exodus 16), says Jesus, but they nevertheless died. Jesus, in contrast, says that “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

If this sounds scandalous to our modern ears, we can console ourselves that it also did to the original audience two thousand years ago. The Jews grumbled about comparing himself to God; wasn’t he the son of Joseph, “whose father and mother we know? How can he say such things?” And his own disciples dismissed Jesus’s claim as a hard saying. Who can accept this, they protested? From that time on, says the gospel, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (6:66).

Look carefully and all around you see misguided attempts to fulfill legitimate human longings. They encourage me to pray with Augustine just a few pages later in his Confessions: “Turn us, O God of Hosts, show us Thy countenance, and we shall be whole. For wherever the soul of man turns itself, unless toward Thee, it is riveted upon sorrows, even though it is riveted upon things beautiful.”

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