For four weeks now we have been hearing about Jesus and bread. He fed the multitude with bread and fish. He spoke of manna in the wilderness as bread from heaven. He said, ¨I am the Bread of Life¨. And now he says, ¨I am the living bread that came down from heaven … Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.¨
The Gospel has drawn a straight line for us from the miraculous feeding of the hungry crowds to the Eucharist. Maybe it´s time for us to reflect on the Eucharist, that bread from heaven that we consume every Sunday, especially as our weekly forums are leading us through an instructed Eucharist.
Most of us here are in the privileged position of not having to think too hard about what we eat. Oh, we plan meals and we follow recipes; we make lists and choose one grocery store over another because of cost or quality or variety; but our food is readily available to us, on shelves or in refrigerators. We don’t have to worry about whether the crops will get enough rain or whether our livestock will be attacked by disease or predators. We don’t have to spend hours weeding or milking or hunting. Most of the time we have no idea where our food comes from. We don’t know who sowed the seed, who harvested the grain, who slaughtered the animals, who drove the trucks across the country, who prepared and packaged it.
Did you know that the average journey of food in the United States from farm to table is some 2000 miles? I did a little research the other day into our Communion wafers. They are made of nothing but whole wheat flour and water, literally untouched by human hand according to the manufacturer’s website, and they come to us from Greenville, Rhode Island, that’s about 2500 miles from San Diego. Our bread from heaven is actually bread from New England. And who knows where the wheat was grown.
I remember a February years ago when I was at a conference in Connecticut and a blizzard was coming. It was the day before Valentine’s Day and the chef had planned special treats, so he stayed over and even though we were snowed in we got chocolate and fresh raspberries for our Valentines feast. I remember how incongruous it seemed to eat raspberries, a quintessential summer fruit, on a snowy February day. They had probably come from Chile, a much longer journey than our communion wafers. It felt wrong to indulge ourselves at such a high carbon cost.
The practice of eating together is a sacred one. Hospitality, the first virtue, requires that we offer guests something to eat and drink, as Abraham and Sarah once offered their angelic guests food and drink, and were consequently blessed with Isaac. When we eat together we create community, family, friends. Our life celebrations and holidays are focused on food: marriage, Thanksgiving, funeral receptions. The traditional church potluck allows people to share the fruits of their labors as they come together, and echoes the words of the Didache, a first-century Eucharistic prayer: “As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains, and when brought together became one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” When we eat together we make Church happen.
The forums this month walk us through the process of the Eucharist, allowing us to see the shape of the liturgy. That shape is not an accident. We enter the near presence of God with songs of praise. We hear the word of God, first through the prophets and apostles and then through Jesus himself in the Gospel. We contemplate that word, guided by the preacher who has hopefully applied some level of theological education and study to the sermon, opening up the word through personal interpretation so that we too can find our own way of receiving that word. We pray for ourselves and for others. We confess our sins and once assured of God´s forgiveness we can offer one another the reconciling Peace of God.
The first part of the Eucharistic prayer reminds us of the great history of salvation, from creation to the resurrection of Jesus and on to his second coming.. The sacrament that follows carries meaning only because of what has come before. We can receive the bread of life, the flesh and blood of Jesus, because we have heard his words, practiced reconciliation, and prepared ourselves for union with him. Only then can we possibly expect to become the body of Christ in the world. At the end of the service the deacon sends us forth to be companions for one another – a word that literally means those who eat bread together.
One of our forums several months ago focused on our food supply and touched on the ethical and physical challenges of a meat-based diet. That talk has stayed with me, to the extent that I now eat less meat and I think more about where the meat came from and how the animal was raised. What we put in our bodies matters, because it becomes us and has an effect on our lives.
Just as the food we eat changes us, so the heavenly food that we eat changes us too. We receive the Eucharist believing it in some way to be the flesh and blood of Jesus, and it changes us. It changes us individually and it changes us corporately. As one writer puts it, “We eat Jesus as the bread of life so that he can enter into us, transform us from within, so we can perform in the world the healing, nurturing ministries he makes possible. Jesus has become our food so we can be a source of nurture for others.” Norman Wirzba “God the Gardener” in Yale Divinity School’s Reflections Fall, 2014.
One of our most beloved prayers asks God to give us this day our daily bread. This isn’t just asking for a regular supply of nourishment: this is asking for the bread from heaven to be always available to us. How does Jesus become our daily bread? Not only through the Eucharist, but also through our life as the body of Christ, living in community. We need to absorb Jesus every day, let his words soak into our souls, hear his voice in everyone we meet, encounter every mouthful as a sacrament, so that we become Christ´s presence in the world. We are transformed not at a cellular level but, if you’ll forgive the wordplay, at a soulular level. We are to chew on him, to gulp down his teaching – the choice of words in the original language of the Gospel conveys this earthiness. He is as close to us as the slice of bread at the breakfast table. It is no accident that Jesus chose the most basic food source, ordinary bread, as the primary vehicle through which we receive him.
Some theologians insist that the Eucharist is valid only when wheat is used to make the Host. In fact, the website for our communion wafer supplier has a disclaimer in the description of their gluten-free option: “it is considered invalid material for the Catholic Mass”. We Episcopalians have a different take: just as Jesus used the most ordinary, most readily available materials, so Christians in different parts of the world can use whatever comes to hand for the Eucharist. And if wheat makes you sick, it’s OK to substitute something else, because our God is a loving God who doesn’t want anyone to suffer, especially not at the hands of the church. One of the most horrifying aspects of the clergy child abuse tragedy is that the abuse was perpetrated by hands consecrated to bless and heal, hands ordained to administer the sacrament that more than anything else proves God’s endless, unconditional, life-giving and liberating love for all of God’s children.
It is that love that forms the basis of all life. Whether it’s our daily bread on the dinner table, or our symbolic bread at the Communion rail, God’s love gives us all we need to live in fullness and abundance. And there is enough to go round. There is no reason for anyone to go hungry in this world, if only we make the commitment to share what we have with those who have less. The really miraculous thing about love is that the more you share it, the more you have to give away, just like the loaves and fishes that turned into baskets and baskets of food.
Just as the Gospel centers on bread from heaven, so our life in Christ begins and is renewed with that bread. In our darkest moments, the Eucharist will shine a light to lead us back from death to life. When my husband died, my church celebrated his life with a beautiful Requiem. My sons and I had discussed whether to include the Eucharist, given that my husband was not a communicant. My sons allowed my wishes to prevail and we had a Communion service. But it wasn’t until I was kneeling at the rail and first one, then the other son knelt beside me that I knew we would be OK. Jesus says, “The one who eats this bread will live.” So come, you who have much faith and you who have little; you who have tried to follow and all of us who have failed: come to the table, not because the church invites you: it is Jesus, the bread from heaven, who calls you to taste and see just how good our loving, life-giving, liberating God can be.
August 19, 2018
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges
Why do we celebrate the Eucharist? For all the reasons Dom Gregory Dix enumerates, in his classic work The Shape of the Liturgy.
“Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.”