the word and the bread
I love the story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from the Acts of the Apostles for several reasons. The first is this: did anyone wonder what an Ethiopian eunuch was doing on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, reading the prophet Isaiah? Here’s my explanation of it…
Remember Solomon had an affair with the Queen of Sheba, and legend is that she went home pregnant with Solomon’s child. Some people think that the ancient country of Sheba is modern day Yemen. But most scholars think, and Ethiopians claim, that it was actually a part of Ethiopia, and that some form of the faith of the Hebrews was brought there by the Queen of Sheba. (This, by the way, is the claim of the Rastafarian religion, from which comes reggae music, and their devotion to Emperor Haile Sellasie of Ethiopia who they called the “Lion of Judah” because he was considered to be a descendant of Solomon. He even wore what was known as Solomon’s ring. Many folks do not know that the reggae music of Jamaica often quotes the psalms, and God is referred to as “Jah” which comes from the tetragrammaton YHWH. I used to refer to Rastafarians as “black Hebrews.” But I digress…) There was even until modern times a whole diaspora of Jews in both the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, which are separated from each other only by the Gulf of Aden. And so perhaps here we have this Ethiopian eunuch from the court of a descendant of the Queen of Sheba (I like to think of him as an early Rastafarian maybe listening to Bob Marley in his ear buds in his chariot) visiting to the homeland of his faith, reading the Prophet Isaiah.
And he stumbles onto just the very thing that seems to keep coming up so much this Easter season––the suffering servant, and what that meant about the Messiah, why that was pointing to the Christ. And so Philip has a chance to open his mind to understand the Scriptures in the same way that the unrecognized Risen Jesus had done for the disciples on the road to Emmaus and for the apostles gathered in the upper room.
The other reason I like this reading––this is a story I can only tell now years after it happened: there was a young man that came through here on his bicycle some years ago and I wound up spending a lot of time talking to him. He was not a Christian (his parents might have been non-practicing Buddhists), but during his bike trip across the country he had been reading the sacred scriptures of all the world’s religions. And he told me that as he read the Gospels––I’ll never forget this––he wept. He had all kinds of questions about Christianity and Catholicism in particular, and so we spent a lot of time talking, and I tried to explain things the best I could, especially in the light of other religions, which he had studied considerably. After a few days he was imploring me to baptize him before he left and continued on his pilgrimage. I was hesitant, because he had had no formal instruction outside of all the reading that he had done (which was an immense amount) and the long conversations he had had with me. Well, one day shortly before he was to leave (it was right around this time of year), this reading from Acts was read at Mass. That afternoon we went hiking down to Lime Kiln Canyon and we both remembered the line, ‘Look, here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptized?’ And so, armed with nothing but the Apostles’ Creed, I baptized him a Christian, full immersion right there in Lime Kiln Creek. (Later when he wanted to get confirmed, I had to write his parish a letter certifying that he had indeed really been baptized, so it’s all been regularized now. But it is a Baptism I will never forget.)
We are also continuing to hear in these days from the great Bread of Life discourse in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John. And of course our minds go immediately to the Eucharist. But we should never forget how closely linked the Word is to the Bread, as the Liturgy of the Eucharist is tied to the proclamation of the gospel in the Liturgy of the Word. I never tire of reminding people that one of the reforms of the liturgy at the 2nd Vatican Council was that no sacrament should ever be celebrated without a reading from Scripture; and even receiving Holy Communion outside of Mass is supposed to be accompanied by the reading of the gospel of the day. And the documents refer to the “one table of the Word and Sacrament.” This stretches back as far as We do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God, through Wisdom has prepared a banquet and set forth her wine and calls to her children, ‘Come and eat of my bread and drink the wine I have mixed,’ straight through to the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and Jesus’ priestly prayer and washing his disciples’ feet before blessing the bread and wine in the Gospel of John. The Word and the Sacrament cannot be separated from each other.
My old friend Rory Cooney wrote a song some years ago whose lyrics were kind of controversial. It goes, “I am the bread of life. / You and I are the bread of life, / taken and blessed, / broken and shared by Christ / that the world might live.” We never know when we are going to be called upon to make sense of the Word of God for someone. We never know when an angel is going to tap us on the shoulder and urge us to go talk to that person, or show some act of kindness to that person… Whenever, like Philip, we do what Jesus did for his disciples and break open the Word for another soul or open someone else’s mind to understand the inner meaning of the Scriptures––through our lives and our actions as much as by our words––then we ourselves, like Jesus, like Philip, not only lead people to Jesus the Bread of Life in the Word and Sacrament, in some way we become the bread of life––taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ, that the world might live.
cyprian, 19 april 18
 Lk 24.
 Deut 8:3, Mt 4:4; Prov 9:5.