Year B   Proper 15

Jesus said: ‘I am the living bread which came down from Heaven.’ That’s all very well but the trouble is – as the priest-poet David Scott points out – we have come ‘A Long Way from Bread’.

In his poem with that quirky title he laments the sad fact that we moderns have lost direct and immediate contact with the making of bread – despite the presence in some middle-class kitchens of bread-making machines. ‘Rarely do we hear the clatter of the mill-wheel (he says) and see the flour in every cranny’. He regrets the demise of ‘baking day and the old loaves: cob, cottage, plaited, brick’ and is saddened by ‘the breach between wheat and table, wheat and bread, bread and what goes for bread’.

This is not just nostalgia on his part. ‘I go on about bread’ he says, ‘because it was to bread that Jesus trusted the meaning he had of himself. It was an honour for bread/to be the knot in the Lord’s handkerchief/reminding him about himself’.

Bread has always been a powerful symbol for the human imagination – representing not only sustenance and nourishment (‘the staff of life’ as an older generation called it) but also companionship, fellowship, community: to break bread and to share it with another or others, is to enter into a kind of covenant with them, becoming companions,  keeping ‘company’ with them – a word which derives directly from the Latin ‘cum pane’ – ‘with bread’.

Bread and wine is what we bring to the Eucharist – bread and wine: note the significance of that –not wheat and grapes but bread and wine – human artefacts, human products.... ‘bread which earth has given and human hands have made...Wine, fruit of the vine and work of human hands’.

‘Work of human hands’. Think of what is implied by that phrase; think of what lies behind those words. Think of the exploitation and manipulation of human beings and the pollution of the natural world, which go into the making of bread and other foodstuffs. All the bitterness of competition, the subsidies paid to farmers to limit over-production while millions elsewhere starve. Think of all the organised selfishness of price-fixing, of tariffs and cartels, all the greed and self-interest in world distribution which brings plenty to some and malnutrition to many. Think of the soil and the water-courses polluted by insecticides and herbicides and the effect of all that on wild-life.

Wine – that too – ‘fruit of the vine and work of human hands’ – the wine of celebration, of rejoicing, partying – ‘wine that makes glad the human heart’ (Ps 104 v15). Like bread, though, wine also is an ambiguous commodity; it too has lost its innocence, its simplicity. It is the cause of some of the most tragic forms of human degradation – drunkenness, addiction, violence, broken relationships, debt.

Bread and wine – our Eucharistic offering, the gifts we bring to the altar – ‘smeared with trade (as Hopkins puts it), bleared, smeared with toil (wearing) man’s smudge and (sharing) man’s smell’. Yet it is with these that Christ chooses to body himself in order to make himself available to us.

In bringing bread and wine to the Lord’s Table at the Eucharist we are acknowledging that as with everything we try to give to God, our offering is compromised and unlovely. So it is that in bringing these gifts we are bringing both the world’s goodness and the world’s sinfulness.

However, the Offertory is not the climax of the Mass: it is only the first part of the Eucharistic action. The gifts we bring to the Altar – compromised and tainted as they are – are given back to us by the Father, transformed into the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord. They are given back to us under the signs of broken Bread and Wine out-poured. They are given back to us as offered in sacrifice  - Christ’s sacrifice.

Saint Augustine and other Church Fathers make great play with the nuanced meanings of the phrase ‘the Body of Christ’ – referring it to Christ’s physical body born of Mary and to the bread of the Eucharist and to the Church – ‘ the faithful company of all believers’.

Christ’s physical body is no longer available to us as a single unique entity existing in history. Yet he has promised to be with us always and he keeps his promise by giving us his Presence in the Eucharist, as also in the Church – as well as in the dispossessed, the hungry, the sick, the unattractive and in all those whom he calls ‘the least of (his) brethren’.

The Fathers teach us that in bringing Bread and Wine - work of human hands - to the Eucharist, it is ourselves we bring, it is ourselves who are on the paten and in the chalice. So it is that in receiving Christ sacramentally in communion we are also in some mysterious way, receiving back ourselves, by Christ and with Christ and in Christ. When we hold out our hands to receive the Eucharist and answer ‘Amen’ to the words of administration (‘the body of Christ...the blood of Christ’) we are saying ‘Amen’ to our own mystery as human-beings. We are saying ‘Amen’ to our own brokenness, to the brokenness of the Church and to the brokenness of the world. We are saying ‘Amen’ to the broken Body and the poured out Blood of Christ; we are saying ‘Amen’ to his sacrifice and in doing so we align ourselves with it, and receive it into ourselves.

In saying ‘Amen’ to all that, we are in fact saying ‘Yes’ to the invitation to become what we receive in the Eucharist, to become broken and given for others. We are placing ourselves into Jesus’ hands, to be held by him, blessed by him and to be broken by him – to be snapped out of what we think we are, where we think we belong, who we want to call ourselves. What that means is that we are risking ourselves to life – to not being in control, not struggling to promote myself at the expense of others, or manipulate them.

It means being willing to risk ourselves to others, committing ourselves to them, letting them make claims upon us, allowing them to take liberties with us. For Jesus is present to us in other people; he comes to us and meets us in one another right now – the Jesus who takes and blesses and breaks and gives.

‘Living Bread’. Bread is humble and generous. It does not exist merely for its own sake, it is for something other than itself. Bread is for breaking, for sharing; it is for sustenance and nourishment. At the Last Supper Jesus says that his body is ‘given for’ us, his blood ‘shed for us’ – for us and for our salvation. The Eucharist, like all the Sacraments, is for something and not just for our own individual and personal sanctification. It is also for the building up of the Body the Church and indeed of the whole human family – for the Church, like the Eucharist, is for something other than itself. The Church is for the Kingdom and the Kingdom is for GOD.

When we say ‘Amen’ to the Eucharistic Prayer and then to the Eucharistic gifts when they are given to us in Communion, we are saying that we too are prepared to be not just for ourselves but also for the Church, for the neighbour, for the world – prepared to be for others – to be as Jesus was in the days of his flesh – given, consecrated, broken and poured out for others – He was for others because before all else he was for God.

So it is that the gifts we offer and receive back in the Eucharist make their claim upon us.

‘As often as (we) eat this bread and drink this cup (we) proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor.11 26). It is into his vulnerability and generosity, into his self-emptying, his self-giving, into his brokenness, his sacrifice, that we are invited to enter and embody in the living out of our discipleship and our vocation –  to be as he was, Bread for the World, ‘living bread’, amid the difficult, puzzling and confusing ambiguities and uncertainties both of ourselves and of the times we live in.

Eric Simmons CR