bread for the journey
Once Hasan al-Basri, accompanied by several people, was on the way to Mecca. They came to a well. They were all thirsty but had no rope to pull a bucket of water. Hasan said, “I am going to pray. While I am praying you will see the water rise. Drink freely and quench your thirst.” So it happened. But when one man, after drinking, filled his water bag for future use, the water sank to its original level. When asked the reason for the strange occurrence, Hasan replied, “It was due to your lack of faith to depend solely on God.” (Attar, in “The Essential Sufi”)
This is the third Sunday in a row that we hear from the Bread of Life discourse from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. This week the Church invites us to meditate specifically on the connection between Eucharist and eternal life. Jesus says that the bread he gives is that which one may eat and never die, and whoever eats this bread will live forever. What makes the Eucharist the bread of eternal life? What is the connection between this bread and eternal life?
First of all, we always have to remember that obviously this Eucharist that we share is not just bread and wine; it becomes body and blood. And it’s not just body and blood, either, but broken body and spilled blood: there’s a direct connection between the Eucharistic table and the cross, between Holy Thursday and Good Friday. But it doesn’t stop there either: it’s not just broken body and spilled blood; it’s the resurrected, glorified body of the Risen Lord. We could make the connection so strong with Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary that we could easily forget that this is not the body of the dead Jesus; this is resurrection bread! In this bread that we eat is the power of resurrection, the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Of course, however, following on that, we also need to remember the challenge in Paul’s famous words in second Timothy: it is only if we have died with Christ that we shall live with him; it is only if we hold out ‘til the end that we will reign with him. There is a certain whole lot of dying we must do to fully access this power of resurrection that is present in the Eucharist.
Even more than the gospel reading, I’m fascinated by the image that the church gives us in regards to the Eucharist in the first reading today, from 1 Kings chapter 19. Last week we heard from the book of Exodus about those very ancestors who ate manna in the desert that Jesus is speaking about in today’s Gospel. They were so hungry that they were willing to give up and go back to Egypt, that place of cruel slavery, and it’s at that point of real hunger that the Lord feeds them. And we see someone here again today, Elijah, falling into that same despair. Queen Jezebel is hunting Elijah down to kill him, and Elijah is praying for death. He falls asleep under a broom tree, and I wonder if this falling asleep isn’t itself a symbol of death, as if in falling asleep he somehow dies, and enters into a new realm, a different realm, maybe a dreamscape, where he is twice greeted by an angel who has brought him nourishment. Elijah is heading to Horeb, the mountain where he will have his epiphany in the cave, meeting God in the still small voice, in the sound of sheer silence––it’s the very next scene after this one––, and this food will be his strength for the next 40 days and 40 nights that it will take him to cross the desert to get there. ‘Eat, the angel tells him, or the journey will be too much for you.’ It is surely from this reading that we get the tradition of calling the Eucharist “bread for the journey.” You can’t help but see an allusion to the forty years of the Israelites in the desert and Jesus’ own forty days in the desert. But just like the Israelites in the desert, so too here with Elijah, the key is first of all in the emptiness, in the hunger. When the Israelites were really hungry and ready to rely solely on God, when Elijah has been emptied of his own strength, when he has reached the limits of his own power, the crisis of limitations, God feeds him.
Perhaps we only truly appreciate the power of the Eucharist when we are that hungry, when we are that poor. We tend to see the Eucharist pre-figured in other gospel feedings, especially in the miracle stories––the feeding of the 5,000, with twelve baskets left over there was such an abundance, even in the 153 fish that Peter hauls to the shore and Jesus prepares as a meal for his friends in the post-resurrection appearance on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And that is well and good, but perhaps we shouldn’t get too comfortable there, with the abundance and the cup flowing over. It’s similar to the tension between seeing the Eucharist as a sacrifice or seeing the Eucharist as a meal or a banquet. We always need to hold on to that tension––it’s a sacrificial meal. In our comfortable consumer culture abundance and banquets are easy for us; we’re used to that––the glug glug glug of wine pouring, portions so big in restaurants that you can’t possibly finish them, such mountains of food that we throw away our leftovers, and aisle after aisle of shelves filled with every variety of peanut butter and jelly, cake mixes and canned goods––so much to choose from! No, these weeks, with the Old Testament readings that have been paired with the Bread of Life discourse I think we’re invited to see the Eucharist as bread for the journey, just enough for the day. All the angel gives Elijah is a loaf of bread and a jar of water! We are supposed to come hungry, but we’re also supposed to leave a little lean, as well, with just enough food for the journey, just enough strength for the day, as the Israelites learned about the manna––if they kept it more than one day it rotted; it was only food for the journey; if you hoard a little more water the level in the well sinks back down; as Jesus tells us to take nothing extra with us on the road to spreading his Word. Our daily bread––the bread we need, no more, no less.
I have a suspicion that in the days to come it might just be the poor themselves who are going to be leading the way, or at least those who know how to live close to the earth, and those who know how to live simply. It may be these who will be teaching the rest of us how to survive. All these things that we have stored up for ourselves, all the things that we have come to consider as our rights and our standard of living may suddenly seem like what they are to much of the rest of the world––luxury items that we have been gorging ourselves on. By necessity we are going to have to learn to live simpler, and more gently on the earth, and learn to content ourselves with just enough to get by. And then, when we are down to the basics, when we are empty and close enough to death, we might really learn what the Eucharist is––bread for the journey, just enough for the day. I’m thinking of that famous saying of St. Clare of Assisi, who we will be celebrating this week: “Of this I am absolutely certain, that the Lord promises and gives the reign of heaven only to the poor.”
The Eucharist is a sacrificial meal. This Eucharist that we share is not just bread and wine, it becomes body and blood; and not just body and blood but broken body and spilled blood before it is resurrected body and blood! Before we can reign with Jesus and share in eternal life, we have to die with him, die in prayer and in love, emptying ourselves in service, patience, kindness, emptying ourselves often simply of our self-will, emptying ourselves completely, content with the grace of God. Then we will experience this bread and wine as the resurrected body of Jesus, suffused with the Spirit of the Risen Lord. We have to somehow die with him to access its power, be hungry enough and empty enough to rely solely on God. And then we will get what we need, bread for the journey, enough for the day, our daily bread.
After that, we still need to stay poor, stay hungry, stay empty, reliant and faithful. But for now, let us get up and eat, else the journey will be too much for us.