“Food tastes so good when you’re hungry!” Veritas from the lips of babes. This time it’s your ten-year-old son who has just worked his tail off after 60 minutes of hard-played soccer. And he’s right. After all, that’s what food is for!
The Scriptures gratefully acknowledge the blessing of food and drink: God gave “wine to gladden their hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread to sustain the human heart” (Ps 104:15). Believable on the lips of any rabbi and no doubt embodied by many a doting Italian grandmother, this verse fosters a spirituality of gratitude for the goodness inherent throughout God’s creation. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Delicious food and drink remind us of the richness of the human life they nourish. This is why saying Grace before Meals is a great Catholic tradition.
But we all know that the Christian use of food and drink does not stop with merely bodily sustenance. We have truly been made partakers in a spiritual refreshment, the “bread of angels” (Ps 78:25). This revelation was only hinted at in the Old Testament prefigurations but was taught openly in the public ministry of Jesus:
Do not labor for food that perishes. … The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh (Jn 6:27,51b).
Here in the “Bread of Life Discourse,” Jesus introduces one of his most striking teachings. His audience is a hungry multitude which followed him throughout the hill country of Judea, much like the Chosen People of Israel who wandered through the Desert of Sinai. When he tells his audience that “my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:55), they are rightly taken aback! Yet Jesus does not respond to their genuine shock by adjusting his new teaching. Rather, he insists upon its spiritual grounding and later confirms it at the Last Supper. St. John reports that at the end of the “Bread of Life Discourse,” “many of [Christ’s] disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (Jn 6:66). However, a group of disciples led by Simon Peter believed Jesus based on his authority as “the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69).
Following in the faith of Peter and the Apostles, we must give heed to what Christ is showing us by instituting this sacrament. Why make simple bread and wine become his Body and Blood and then command that this be repeated for time immemorial? St. Thomas Aquinas lists among the principal effects of the Eucharist that “this sacrament does for the spiritual life all that material food does for the bodily life.” If we pay attention to the basic sacramental signs at play here, we can come to a better understanding of the spiritual reality made present by God’s design.
By the Body of Christ, we are fortified with strength for the journey, aptly represented by the appearance of bread. If a bagel from your favorite deli powers you through the first hours of the day, what kind of spiritual vitality and endurance might you expect from the Son of the living God?
By the Blood of Christ, we are spiritually gladdened so that what was formerly harsh along the way becomes sweet under the influence of divine charity. Think of the relaxation and refreshment that come from your favorite summer beverage. How much better will the spiritual drink that comes from God’s banquet table give ease to your tired spirit?
The appearances of bread and wine, although veiling the new essence of Who is there, help us to understand the purpose of Holy Communion: grace comes to nourish and enliven the charity already aflame from Baptism. We find strength for the demands of life in Jesus’s friendship. Our sacramental unity with God’s Son turns sweet what had been bitter and makes ever more fresh what before felt so dull. Increasing our frequency of attendance at Mass and worthy reception of Christ’s Body and Blood, we should expect to find ourselves overawed by the extent of God’s providence. Reflecting on this gift which nourishes the mystery of divine life within us, we may well find ourselves thinking, “food never tasted so good!”
Image by Nick Hillier