I have a very clear memory from my childhood. It has to do with food. But also more than food.
At our house, we had a beautiful vegetable garden all along our fence in the backyard. I remember my parents out there in the evenings, tending and watering, weeding and harvesting. My specific memory is this: when I was young, maybe 6 or 7 years old, in the summer I would go out to our garden and my mom would help me pick a ripe tomato. She would wash it for me with the garden hose and then I could sit at the picnic table in the yard with her and eat the whole thing. It is a delicious memory about tomatoes, but more than just tomatoes.
It is one image of abundance that I have. There are, of course, other images. I am sure you can call to mind some of your own personal ones. If we look around, especially in the summertime, we can see some more: we can see people flock to the market in downtown Kitchener on Saturday mornings to get a taste of the produce, herbs, and baked goods, and maybe to catch up with neighbours and vendors they have come to know. It’s an ordinary ritual many people have come to do. We can see children playing in the water at the splash pad in Victoria Park, running, jumping, shrieking as the water sprays and the parents watch carefully. We see it in parks all over Waterloo Region. And just yesterday, driving home and stopped at a red light, I could smell the fresh fragrance of bread being baked at a local bakery. Ordinary, common events. But so much more than.
Perhaps these are the kinds of images the bible would use if it were written today.
In our readings from John’s gospel the last couple of weeks, Jesus’ words ring true for his disciples and for those who listened and followed him. Jesus is using one of those great “I am” statements, linking him with the great and mysterious “I AM” when God speaks to Moses. I am the bread of life. More than likely, the image that Jesus used also reminded them of God giving “manna” in the wilderness. More than likely, it reminded them of the prophets who used the “bread of life” to mean the wisdom that comes from God to humanity, to us. The Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible says this in Proverbs: “Come, eat of my bread; drink the wine I have mixed.” (Proverbs 9:5). The book of Ecclesiasticus describes what Wisdom will do for the one who fears God: “She will feed him with the bread of understanding, and give him the water of wisdom to drink.” (Eccl. Or Sirach 15:3).
In other words, those who long for the knowledge and love of God will find it in such commonplace things like bread and water and wine, but so much more than. It is no mistake that words everyone understands and have a connection with – are used to tell us what the wisdom of God is like. And more than that, those who long for the mystery that is God will find it abundantly.
Jesus was using those ordinary but ancient images of the great banquet, of manna in the wilderness, of abundance, to say to his followers: look and see; smell and taste: the banquet is here and it is now. It is here in me. “I am the bread of life,” he says. That bread is available, that abundance is available, for all who yearn for it and search it out. The key is, whoever sees it, whoever is filled by it, must share it. Once we have been fed, we are called to feed others.
More than likely, at the time John wrote his gospel, the first century Christians had already begun to connect Jesus’ words claiming to the bread of life to their growing sacramental understanding of the mystery of Holy Communion. Just as they had experienced Jesus as a man, but more than a man, so they saw in the Eucharistic bread, but more than bread. Bread became the very sign of the presence of Jesus. The bread, and the wine, became the very mystery of Christ in their midst. To receive this bread, to eat it, was to taste the love of God in Christ – offering grace, forgiveness, and nourishment for their lives in a very profound way.
Father Edmond J. Dunn tells this story: “It was an early October evening in a university town in the late 1950’s. I was a graduate student and participating in the late afternoon Eucharistic liturgy in the Quonset hut that served as a campus chapel. The chapel overlooked a Quonset village left over from World War II days that the university now used for housing married graduate students. Often these young families would make their way to the chapel to participate in the daily supper of the Lord, bringing their toddlers with them.
“As the words of institution were pronounced and the preside raised the holy bread for people to see – a time when things get very quiet and parents especially want their children to be attentive – the voice of a two year old pierced the silence with a questioning ‘Dat Jesus?’ Then, as the parents tried to assure the child that indeed was Jesus but one should be quiet, the little one burst out again, affirming the parent’s suggestion, ‘Dat’s Jesus!’ Finally, caught up with the attention of the moment, the two year old exclaimed with an unrestrained exuberance, ‘Daaaat’s Jeeeesus!’
Dunn wrote: “All of a sudden it dawned on me that the child understood the mystery as well as I did; or perhaps said better the other way. I understood the mystery I was participating in little more than the child whose parent was whispering, ‘Be still, Jesus is coming.’
The bread Jesus offers to the world is his own self. Those of us who come to the table with hands outstretched, come wanting and needing to be filled with Christ. We come knowing that there is mystery and holy in the ordinary act of eating bread and drinking wine. We come knowing that we long to be fed and to be filled with the ordinary which is so much more than ordinary – it is the very stuff of life.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg