A few weeks ago I walked into a conversation that had begun before I arrived. A fellow was pontificating on healthy eating. He eschewed bread, pasta, potatoes and host of other basic food items. I said nothing, but my thoughts raced.
The fellow speaking was thoroughly convinced of the wisdom of his advice. I remain thoroughly convinced that the absence of the foods he disparaged would make for a life not worth living.
No bread, pasta or fries? Death would be a significant improvement over that. Even the biblical authors agree with me.
In the Gospel reading this Sunday Jesus refers to himself as “the bread of life.” (John 6:51) This, and the other comparisons that Jesus makes to bread, are intended to be a play on words. In the ancient world bread was the primary source of nutrition for the vast majority of the population. Bread was called “the staff of life” because it was an indispensable dietary staple.
The Gospel’s play on words compared the Incarnate Word of God to an essential necessity of life. This was not a new idea. In the first reading Moses told the Israelites, “it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
I suggest to you that the metaphorical interpretation of God’s Word, Jesus, as spiritual sustenance given by God is a good way to understand the feast we celebrate today and the reference of the feast: Eucharist.
Sunday Mass, as we experience it today, is the result of an accommodation made to Christian worship in the early fourth century. For the first few centuries of Christian history, congregations were rather small, usually no more than a few dozen people.
Christian worship consisted of a shared meal and a memorial of the Last Supper. Today’s second reading is taken from a long section of the First Letter to Corinthians that describes the communal meal and the memorial of the Last Supper.
For a few centuries it worked well for Christians to meet in someone’s home, and share a meal together. When congregations began to grow in size, this was no longer practical. The shared meal was abandoned, and worship was formalized as a public reading of the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, and the memorial of the Last Supper.
Although much has changed over the centuries, there remain in our Sunday celebration some similarities to a large, shared meal. I’m not referring to those who bring their water bottles out of fear of dehydration in the desert climate that is Florida, nor to those who carry on conversations that are completely off the topic.
The second reading says, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Corinthians 10:17) Although it is no longer practical to partake of a single loaf of bread at our Eucharist we are, nonetheless, still one body in sharing Eucharist. That communal identity must be consciously in our minds when we are here; otherwise, we are not really partaking of the Lord.
In addition to showing interest in the people with whom we share this spiritual meal, we are obliged to show some gratitude to God.
In the first reading Moses reminded the Israelites that God had freed them from slavery in Egypt, led them through a wasteland, protected them from harm and fed them. (Deuteronomy 8:14-16) We, too, are the recipients of God’s guidance, blessing and care. We ought to be grateful, and express that gratitude publicly.
The size of Catholic congregations adds an extra challenge to our efforts to be united as one body, but this is not an insurmountable obstacle.
Augustine wrote, “You reply “Amen” to what you are, and thereby agree that such you are. You hear the words “The body of Christ” and you reply “Amen.” Be, then, a member of Christ’s body, so that your “Amen” may accord with the truth.” Let’s make this, and every, Mass a statement about the truth of our lives – a statement that we are members of Christ’s body which we encounter in the Eucharist.