The Bread of Adversity
Sunday of the 1st Week of Advent

Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I've said it often enough that after a glance at history, it is obvious that human beings are at their worst in times of prosperity; we are at our best in times of difficulty. That's true of the history of every nation, even the history of Israel. During times of prosperity, Israel fell away from fidelity to the law, during times of suffering and adversity, Israel returned in a spirit of repentance.

When things go well with us, we lose a sense of our own limitations. We become arrogant, cocky, we feel invulnerable and invincible. In times of suffering, however, we feel our limitations, our radical dependency, and we become more humble. And because we become more humble, we become more human, and more humane. All three words are derived from humus, which means soil, dirt, or earth. People who have lost a sense of their own limitations, who think their success is due to their own efforts, also tend to lack a humane spirit; they cannot identify with those who suffer, and they trust too readily in their own way of seeing things. But suffering brings us back to reality, and when we feel the sharp pain of our own helplessness, we cry out to God. Of course, we don't necessarily cry out to God, some of us need to suffer more before we get to that point, but God gives us sufficient grace to call upon Him.

The first reading assures us that if we cry out to God, He will answer: "Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore,"

What's interesting about this reading is the expression "the bread of adversity and the water of affliction". Adversity and affliction are described here as nourishment. Suffering is bread; affliction is water. Without them, we die of starvation. And it really is true, those who never suffer, or who have suffered very little in life, are often spiritually dead, or if not completely dead, at least spiritually very thin and undernourished. But if we belong to Christ, he assures us that we will suffer.

But we can take comfort in the fact that adversity is bread, food. For the Jews, to eat or share a meal was to enter into communion with the persons at table with you. When we suffer, we are given bread, and so we enter into communion with Christ and the communion of saints - all of whom have suffered. Friendships are always based on common qualities: we are drawn to those of like character. That's why Christ feeds us with the bread of adversity, so that we can become more like him, have more in common with him, so that we will have a greater and more intense friendship with him in eternity. I think that's why the Lord allows difficulties to drag on. He delights when we call out to him in a spirit of poverty and faith. What he sees is the development of a friend that he will have for all eternity.

There is no doubt he hears the cry of the poor. That's all over Scripture, and this gospel says it very clearly: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." He is moved to compassion at the sight of his friends, left alone and without a shepherd to comfort them. That's when he is closest to us.

But then he tell us: "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest." He's telling us to pray. And the Lord hears prayer. He answers prayer. But we have to pray with faith. That's the one thing in the Scriptures that moves the heart of God; faith. He could not work many miracles in his home town of Nazareth, because he didn't find much faith there.

But what's also interesting about this gospel is that he gives his disciples authority over unclean spirits, and gives them the authority to cast them out, to cure disease. We are his disciples, and we have been anointed priest, prophet and king when we were confirmed; thus, we have that authority.

But if a person has authority, for example, authority in the work place, or the authority of public office, but does not believe he has that authority, then no one else will recognize his authority. He will be ineffective; no one will listen to him. So too, we have been given a certain authority over the realm of darkness, but if we don't believe it, if we don't exercise that authority that is ours, that gift becomes useless and ineffective.

So we have to pray with faith, with the awareness that the Lord have given us power, has given us authority over the kingdom of darkness, and we have to exercise that authority in a spirit of confidence and trust. We will then see the fulfillment of his promises in our lives.