Monday, August 13, 2012

bread for the journey

Once Hasan al-Basri, accompanied by several people, was on the way to Mecca. They came to a well. They were all thirsty but had no rope to pull a bucket of water. Hasan said, “I am going to pray. While I am praying you will see the water rise. Drink freely and quench your thirst.”
            So it happened. But when one man, after drinking, filled his water bag for future use, the water sank to its original level. When asked the reason for the strange occurrence, Hasan replied, “It was due to your lack of faith to depend solely on God.” 
(Attar, in “The Essential Sufi”)

On the third Sunday that we hear from the Bread of Life discourse from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, the church seems to invite us to meditate specifically on the connection between Eucharist and eternal life. Jesus says that the bread he gives is that which one may eat and never die, and whoever eats this bread will live forever. What makes the Eucharist the bread of eternal life?  What is the connection between this bread and eternal life?

First of all, we always have to remember that this Eucharist that we share is not just bread and wine; it becomes body and blood; and not just body and blood but broken body and spilled blood!  And not just broken body and spilled blood but the resurrected, glorified body of the Risen Lord. We’ve become so accustomed to images of Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary in association with the Eucharist that we could easily forget that this is not the body of the dead Jesus; this is resurrection bread! In this bread that we eat is the power of resurrection, the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Secondly, we remember Paul’s famous words in second Timothy: it is only if we have died with Christ that we shall live with him; it is only if we hold out ‘til the end that we will reign with him. There is a certain whole lot of dying we must do to fully access this power of resurrection that is present in the Eucharist.

I’m even more fascinated by the image that the church gives us in regards to the Eucharist in the first reading than in the Gospel, from 1 Kings chapter 19.  Last week we heard from the book of Exodus about those very ancestors who ate manna in the desert that Jesus is speaking about in the Gospel of John. They were so hungry that they were willing to give up and go back to Egypt, that place of cruel slavery, and it’s at that point of real hunger that the Lord feeds them. And we see someone here again today, falling into that same despair. Queen Jezebel is hunting Elijah down to kill him, and Elijah is praying for death. He falls asleep under a broom tree, and I wonder if this falling asleep isn’t itself a symbol of death, as if in falling asleep he somehow dies, and enters into a new realm, a different realm, maybe a dreamscape, where he is twice greeted by an angel who has brought him nourishment. It is surely from this reading that we get the tradition of calling the Eucharist “bread for the journey.” Elijah is heading to Horeb, the mountain where he will have his epiphany in the still small voice, and this food will be his strength for the 40 days and forty nights that it will take him to cross the desert to get there. You can’t help but see an allusion to the forty years of the Israelites in the desert and Jesus’ own forty days in the desert.  But like the Israelites in the desert, so too here with Elijah, the key is in the emptiness. When the Israelites were really hungry and ready to rely solely on God, when Elijah has been emptied of his own strength, when he has reached the limits of his own power, the crisis of limitations, God feeds him. 

What I am thinking is that perhaps we only truly appreciate the power of the Eucharist when we are that hungry, when we are that poor. I have this feeling that in the days to come it might just be the poor themselves who will lead the way, and with them those who know how to live close to the earth, and those who know how to live simply. It may be these who will be teaching the rest of us how to survive in the days ahead. All these things that we have stored up for ourselves, all the things that we have come to consider as our rights and our standard of living are suddenly going to seem like what they are to the rest of the world––luxury items that we have been gorging ourselves on.  By necessity we are going to have to learn to live simpler, and more gently on the earth, and learn to content ourselves with just enough to get by.  And then, when we are down to the basics, when we are empty and close enough to death, we will really learn what the Eucharist is––bread for the journey, just enough for the day.

There’s a quote by the liturgist and author Nathan Mitchell that I also never tire of reading and quoting.  You know in this day and age we Catholics have accented much more the meal aspect of the Eucharist over the sacrificial aspect.  This has its advantages and disadvantages. Nathan Mitchell says that one of the disadvantages is that “banquets suggest abundance, lavish excess of food and drink,” as though the Eucharist were “a luxury meal for wealthy gourmands.”  Of course this image is strongly appealing in an affluent culture of conspicuous consumption such as ours, “where a significant portion of our population is overweight and an equally significant portion drives humungous, gas-guzzling all-terrain SUVs to the mall or supermarket!” And yet, he reminds us, there are millions of people on our planet “who would give their last scrap of clothing for single cup of rice. In our world, a human being dies of hunger every 3.6 seconds, and 75 percent of them are kids under the age of five.” And so we have to face the fact that “there is an ethics, an economics of Eucharist that we are not free to ignore. If we come away from the table feeling fat, full, content, and satisfied––if we come away purring like cats, licking the last drop of cream from our whiskers––then we’ve missed the point. Because the point of the Eucharistic meal is not to leave the table sleek, sassy, and satisfied; the point is to leave hungry, troubled, dissatisfied. The point is to leave with a burr under the saddle, with a tickle in the throat, with a heart broken by the passion of God.”[1] We are supposed to come hungry, but we’re also supposed to leave a little lean, as well, with just enough food for the journey, just enough strength for the day, as the Israelites learned about the manna––if they kept it more than one day it rotted; it was only food for the journey; as Jesus tells us to take nothing extra with us on the road to spreading his word. Our daily bread––the bread we need, no more, no less.

There’s a beautiful choreography in the Roman Catholic liturgy, especially evidenced in a place like our chapel at New Camaldoli, where we get up after the Liturgy of the Word and process into another space, the rotunda, for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Our modern liturgical documents are at stress to point out the inextricable connection between the Word and the Sacrament, so much so that they speak of the two tables of the Word and the Eucharist. The thing is––the Word always demands a response. Now that we have heard the Word and been challenged by it, we are summoned to do something. The response asked of us is two-fold. First of all, to lay our lives on the altar in the form of bread and wine, which get lifted up and accepted and transubstantiated into the Body of Christ. And then, like to Eucharistic bread to be broken open and passed out; like the wine, crushed grasped and poured out.

My friend and colleague Rory Cooney wrote a beautiful provocative song some years ago, which began, “I am the bread of life. You and I are the bread of like.” I remember what a stink it caused especially among people who were suspicious of anything that sounded “unorthodox.” People thought it was terribly humanist, and somehow denied the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I thought of that song again the other day on the feast of St Lawrence, the deacon and martyr who had given his whole life over in service of the poor. After he was tortured on the grill, just before he died, he is reported to have said, “It is finished. Take and eat.” Yes, that’s it, it seems to me. Anything less would be denying the real presence of Christ in us.

The Eucharist is a sacrificial meal.  This Eucharist that we share is not just bread and wine, it becomes body and blood; and not just body and blood but broken body and spilled blood! Before we can reign with Jesus we must die with him, as he did. Not just on Calvary, but emptying ourselves in sometimes very small ways––service, patience, kindness, emptying ourselves often simply of our self-will, emptying ourselves completely, content with the grace of God.  Just as the bread gets broken here at the altar, just as the wine gets poured out, so as we walk out these doors, we, who have become the Body of Christ, have been given enough food for the journey, to go out there and be broken, and be poured out for the sake of those whom we love and those whom we don’t, to walk the forty days through the deserts of our lives ‘til we too see the face of God.

[1]Nathan Mitchell, “Remembering Assembly,” Pastoral Music, Oct-Nov 2000.