Bread that is Enough

eucharist1In reflecting on the journey through the desert, Moses in Deuteronomy says that God humbled the people to teach them—and us—that we do not live by bread alone. (Deut. 8:3) So often we think that our needs are biological and if we can fill them we’ll be just fine. But somehow the daily bread we pray for every day is not quite enough. Actually, the Greek word epiousion usually translated as “daily” means something quite different. Literally it means super-substantial which is a philosophical mouthful. To add to the puzzle, no other use of the word has been found, not even among Greek philosophers. It has been interpreted as referring to the Eucharist which is both bread and more than bread, but it seems anachronistic to suggest that Jesus was sneaking some medieval scholastic theology into the prayer he was teaching his disciples. On the other hand, it is understandable that medieval scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas would understand the word eucharistically. Obscure as the Greek word’s meaning is, the one thing that is moderately clear is that it suggests that physical daily bread that is enough to live on biologically is not enough and we need more. In this respect it could be a brief commentary on the just-quoted verse from Deuteronomy.

There are many ways we speak of needing more than bread, most often by noting our need for a meaningful life. After all, eating and sleeping doesn’t add up to very much no matter how good the food is. Given that, it is instructive that in the desert journey and in the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding the multitude in the wilderness, the people seem to be interested in more food  than in a sense of meaning to life. In John, in spite of the abundance of the feeding in the wilderness, the crowd demands to have this bread always. If we remain stuck at this level, various distortions follow.

The complaints that Moses should have left the people in the “fleshpots” of Egypt is an egregious example of this sort of distortion. Maybe the fare in the desert isn’t luxurious but the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and slave owners have never, in all of world history, gained any kind of reputation as servers of opulent meals to their slaves for all the work slaves might do in serving such meals to others. Further on, the manna appears as if from heaven and the Israelites gather it. Those who gathered more and those who gathered less all had “enough.” They were warned not to try to gather more than enough but many tried it anyway and the manna became foul and full of worms. Quite an apt image for what we get when we try to get too much. Our tendency to try to gather more of anything than we need is an indication that we need more than bread but we are trying to meet that need by gathering more bread. Usually what gathering “more” means is gathering more than other people for the sake of having more than other people. Once we want more than others, it is still never possible under any circumstances to have enough because if we already have more than others, we’ll still want more to make sure they don’t catch up.

In John, when Jesus says that he himself is the bread, he is clearly taking them to a meaning that would bring home the truth that humanity does not live by bread alone. If they really come to him, they will have enough: they will never hunger again. Or will they? Jesus says that they have to believe in him. Raymund Brown says that faith means giving their lives over to the way of Jesus. Will we do that? What is the life Jesus gives us like?

In Ephesians, Paul says that the life Jesus gives us consists of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with each other in love. We are to be one Body in Christ, the same body that we consume in the Eucharist. Being twisted to and fro and being blown about by every wind of doctrine is a powerful way of illustrating what it is like to be caught in the insatiable desire to have what everybody else wants and to have more of it. In contrast, the Body of Christ is solid, anchored. Where the winds of doctrine leave us famished no matter how much bread we have, in Christ’s Body we are gifted with being prophets, apostles, pastors, and teachers all being built together in Christ’s Body. That is, in Christ’s Body we all have enough because we are always feeding one another at all levels of our being as we build each other up in love. Sounds like life to me. Let’s try it.

Eucharist (2): Feeding in the Desert

eucharist1The feedings of the multitude in the wilderness give us a vision of the new life that baptism initiates us into and which the Eucharist sustains. (See Divinely Created Abundance) The multiplication of food through both divine and human generosity is quite the opposite of the accusatory, slave-driving society of Egypt or the chaotic violence before the Flood. All six Gospel accounts remind the reader of God’s gift of manna in the desert after the escape from Egypt. It is John’s Gospel that makes this connection most explicit. Just as the manna needed to be renewed each day, we need to be renewed by the Eucharist on a daily, or at least weekly, basis.

It is also John’s Gospel which warns us of how easily we fall away from living by mutually gifting back into contention and rivalry. First, John says that after declaring Jesus the prophet who was to come, the crowd tried to seize Jesus and make him king. Jesus had not modeled a way to rule over other people. Quite the opposite. Jesus had modeled a way of self-giving without rivalry. This is the way of life that should rule us. Making Jesus a political ruler could only drag him and his followers (us) back into the violently competitive life that baptism delivers us from. Then, the people (i.e. us) murmur against Jesus when he tells us that he himself is the bread come down from heaven. We murmur a lot more when Jesus says that we must eat his body and drink his blood. Murmuring is the very same word used of the Jews who contended with Moses and God in the desert.

We could take the murmuring as referring to the bitter arguments over the Christian centuries as to whether or how Christ can be present in the bread and wine. It seems to me that we should take Jesus at his word here and accept that he feeds us with his death and resurrected life. That’s the hard point; not the metaphysics of the “real presence.” We balk at the idea that Jesus’ death and his ongoing resurrected life can feed us. It’s like Jesus body and blood are poison to the kind of life we’re accustomed to living, which they are.

It is typical of John’s slantwise means of conveying the Gospel that he puts Jesus’ discourses about eating his body and drinking his blood in a context outside of the meal in the upper room. This has the advantage of stressing the ongoing nutrition Jesus offers in the Eucharist. Curiously, this separation also seems to spiritualize the Eucharist in terms of Jesus dwelling in us to give us life, but this comes with a shocker that English translations cannot convey. The Greek word for “eat” is trogein, a very strong verb that doesn’t mean dining nicely with good manners. It means to chew, gnash, grind. Jesus comes right in our faces with our eating as a sacrificial act. We are to be painfully mindful of the sacrificial way of life we left back in Egypt but, unfortunately find ourselves carrying with us through the desert.

The sixth chapter of John ends with most of Jesus’ followers leaving because of these hard words. By being food that nourishes us by reminding ourselves of how sacrificial we tend to be, Jesus is indeed refusing to be the king who fixes everybody else’s wagons that we want him to be. We have wandered far from the community of sharing and giving that began this chapter, the place where Jesus wants us to be.

See Eucharist (1) See Eucharist (3)