“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
God is the source of life. God sustains us on our journey of discipleship. Without God’s nourishment, we grow weak and wither. These convictions are at the heart of the Christian and Jewish faiths. Hence, in both religions, God is regularly worshipped through food and drink. In fact, through the symbols of bread and wine, God is present as the nourishment that gives us life.
As we will see, this is a constant theme throughout Sacred Scripture. Therefore, when Christians want to celebrate and give thanks to God, we come together to share a meal: the Eucharist.
The religious importance of food and drink finds its roots in the practices of the Hebrew people. In ancient Israel, bread played a central role in the religious life of the community. For example, the Passover meal is shared to remember when God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12).
The bread eaten during Passover meals is unleavened because the Israelites left Egypt in haste and had no time to let the bread rise. They were trusting that God would lead them and provide for them. Hence, the unleavened bread of the Passover meal is a way of celebrating the fact that God is the source of life. Just as bread nourishes the body for a journey, it is God who sustains the life of the community.
After leaving Egypt, the Israelites wandered the desert in search of the Promise Land, “a land where you may eat bread without scarcity” (Deuteronomy 8:9). When they came to a place called the Wilderness of Sin, God sustained the Israelites with manna from heaven (Exodus 16). This bread would appear on the ground each morning, but the Israelites could only gather enough to last for one day. If they tried to gather more, it would rot.
Like the Passover bread, this bread helped the Israelites to trust in God. Gathering and eating manna from heaven was God’s way of nourishing Israel. The bread was a reminder that God is the nourishing source of life. Hence, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he instructed them to ask for their “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). This means that we ask only for what we need for the day; we trust that God will provide for us as God provided for the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sin.
Because bread held such a central role in the way that Jewish people understood God, Jesus often used bread as a way of explaining who he was. For example, in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life. Just as God nourished the Israelites with manna in the desert, now God has sent Jesus as our true life-giving nourishment. The manna from heaven kept Israel alive in the Wilderness of Sin; Jesus Christ saves all humankind from the death of sin and offers new life in the Body of Christ.
Building on this imagery, during the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that the bread and wine they are sharing is his body and blood (Luke 22:14-20). He instructs his followers to “do this in memory of me.” Hence, since the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have been sharing meals of bread and wine as a way of celebrating the nourishing presence of Jesus in our midst.
Through the celebration of the Eucharistic meal, Jesus remains among us as the nourishment we need. Through this spiritual food and drink, Jesus helps us grow more fully into the Body of Christ. So, it is clear from the scriptures that Jesus wants his disciples to see him as the nourishment of food and drink.
Why, then, do we often try to forget that the Eucharist is bread and wine? When we come together to enjoy the presence of Jesus as food and drink, we make present the unity of the Body of Christ.
As the scriptures clearly attest, the Eucharist is a meal. The real presence of Jesus is not behind the nourishment; it is the nourishment. Ordinary food and drink is transformed into spiritual nourishment that we share with one another. By eating and drinking together, we are sharing in the real presence of a nourishing God who satisfies our hunger and thirst. God becomes the nourishment that gives us our life as the Body of Christ. So, the next time you go to mass, think of it as a meal.
Do not eat beforehand. Instead, arrive hungry and thirsty so that you might better hunger and thirst for Christ. When you receive the bread and wine during the communion rite, take a moment to savor the nourishment you are being given. As you receive Jesus, take time to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Our God is nourishment, the source of life that sustains us on our journey of discipleship. Happy are we who are called to his supper.