So I have found myself eating more healthfully lately, for the good of my heart, my waist, and my vocation. I’ve even taken to eating wheat bread, which I would say tastes like cardboard except that I don’t want to insult cardboard. I love bread of all kinds, really, and when I walk down a supermarket bread aisle I always remember taking an African seminarian, newly arrived from Nigeria, to the Alexandria Giant supermarket. He was stunned by the availability of so much food, and I came to think that we too should be stunned by the availability of so much food. Who needs 130 different kinds of bread, anyway?
Food was not always so available, and in most places in the world, it still isn’t. “Following the universal tendency of men to think that things must always have been as they are now in our own lives, we can only too easily think that the people of the Old Testament differed from us only in the fact that they lived at an earlier time and in another part of the world. Actually, there was a considerable difference, as even a moment’s thought on the question would lead us to believe.
“The biblical man’s diet was quite simple. Wheat and barley were the current grains and were eaten cooked or parched on a hot plate, or ground into flour by crushing the grain between two pieces of stone. The common vegetables were lentils, coarse beans, and cucumbers; squash and pumpkin, tomato and potato were as yet unknown. Flavoring was supplied by onions, leeks, and garlic. The basic fruits were figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and sycamore figs. Olives were used especially for their oil. Figs, raisins, and dates were dried for future use. Oranges and bananas were introduced only after the Arab conquest (7th century A.D.).
“Bread in Bible lands was the basic nourishment. It was made of wheat or more frequently barley which may be called the bread of the poor. The grain was ground with mortar and pestle, or between two revolving stones, or between the miller’s larger stones. Kneading in an Egyptian painting is done by foot. People frequently ate their bread unleavened and not only for the Passover. The leaven when used was a piece of dough left over from a preceding batch. Bread in Palestine is still usually cooked on a simple metal plate and takes the form of a large round flat pancake. Hence an Arab proverb saying that a hypocrite is two-faced like a loaf of bread. Hence also the custom of breaking bread rather than cutting it. The round pancake-like loaves were so pliable that they could be bent spoon-shape for dipping up gravies and juices. Palestinian bread loaves were also baked in the shape of stones in the wilderness. Three such loaves, about 3,500 years old, were found at Thebes and are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”1
The last few weeks of Gospel lessons have involved food, especially bread. This week, Jesus flips the script a bit, from actual food to spiritual food, to the “eucharistic sign of Jesus. “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, for you to eat and never die. I myself am the living bread. … If you eat this bread, you shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
“A mighty claim. God would be our food, our ultimate provision. God actually wants to inhabit our flesh, make us tabernacles. And think what a powerful profession of faith it is to believe this. Our “Amen” (at the communion rail) is a radical assertion of dependence and desire. “You are our food and drink. You are our sustenance. You are what nourishes us.””2
This can be a tough teaching, especially in our scientific, empirical world. “Our contemporary struggle with belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is a quarrel over transcendence. Only the here is real. Only the now is actual. Only the observable is knowable. Only perishables can sustain us. The immediate feeling. The experience at hand. The pain pressing. The pleasure welcome. Our problem is not just believing that God could inhabit bread. It is believing that God could inhabit us.”3
Perhaps that’s the most stunning thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ: how available He is to us, despite our sins and flaws and shortcomings, despite all the things that would keep God from even looking our way, God makes Himself available to us not just spiritually but physically in Jesus, the Bread of Life, the nourishment of all who come to Him.
1Ernest Lussier, S.S.S. http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=1356
2John Kavanaugh, S. J. http://liturgy.slu.edu/19OrdB080915/theword_embodied.html