Eucharist

The Beauty of Meals Together

 

There’s just something appealing about eating outdoors. And people everywhere seem to recognize this.

So it’s no surprise that some of the most memorable scenes in the Bible involve meals outdoors. These stories provide us with images of people receiving nourishment together, and experiencing fellowship with one another. Yet, these significant occasions stand out because they center on encounters with God. Sitting down with others at a feast is a potent Scriptural image, which connects our life in this world to our life in the next. This is why Christians gather around a table every Sunday. For Jesus said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” And so, both the Last Supper, and ordinary meals, prefigure God’s heavenly banquet. We gather for meal, which we then perceive to be a holy occasion ~ an occasion of fellowship with others in God’s presence. When we gather in this way, we see glimpses of God’s expansive Kingdom.

One of the most evocative of such occasions is found in Exodus 24, in a passage that is often overlooked. After the people of Israel cross the Red Sea, in their Passover escape from Egyptian slavery, Moses gathers them at the foot of Mt Sinai. There, he reads to them from the book of the Covenant. After reading, he sprinkles the blood of the Covenant upon the altar and upon the people. To quote from Exodus, then Moses “Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up (the mountain), and they saw the God of Israel… God did not lay his hand on the chief… people of Israel; [and so] they beheld God, and they ate and drank” in God’s presence, at the top of a mountain. A shared meal in God’s presence involves seeing the Lord.

Writing his Gospel over a thousand years later, John surely had this scene in mind. Drawn by the signs of healing Jesus was doing, a large crowd follows him into a ‘deserted place.’ (Recall how often God reveals self in ‘deserted places.’) With the Passover auspiciously near, Jesus goes up a mountain with his disciples, and sits near the top. In this scene, the bread of life, the bread of heaven, comes down into the midst of God’s people in two ways: in Jesus, and in what they eat. The gathered people eat and drink with one another in God’s presence. And they feast upon the unexpected abundance of divine gifts, for which Jesus has offered thanks. Stunned by the power of his new miraculous sign, the people say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 29, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is by James Tissot, and is titled, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The meal outdoors story from John is found in chapter 6 of his Gospel. (Other Sunday homilies of mine can be accessed by clicking here.)

Literal, Figurative and Mystical Beauty

 

How we move and act, when we celebrate and receive communion, communicates something just as important as the words we use in the same context. Our actions communicate that we take seriously Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel. For Jesus says, “…my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” By how we move and act in our Eucharist together, we show that we know his words are true. Our actions display our belief that we have life in him – that we now share his own life with our Father in heaven.

Along with many Christians we know that bread and wine consecrated in the Eucharist become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This links us, as Anglicans, with Lutherans, the Eastern Orthodox, as well as Roman Catholics. For we all recognize that what we receive in our hands and through our lips is no longer simply bread and wine, even if they may still taste like bread and wine. Something happens in the course of the Eucharistic Prayer. And it happens when we pray in obedience to Jesus’ command, “do this in remembrance of me.” What happens is a real change in the bread and wine, so that they become the risen body and blood of our Lord. And this is the key. For the real change in the bread and the wine happens so that there then can be a real change in us.

We need to notice what many of Jesus’ first followers did not understand. His words are multi-layered, and have at least three meanings: Jesus’ words first have literal meaning; his words also have figurative meaning; and third, his words have mystical meaning. With his words, Jesus tells us he is giving himself to us, and that he is giving himself for us. Jim Janknegt’s painting, The Bread of Life, reproduced above, beautifully captures all three meanings.

Jesus’ words to us are at first literal, in the sense that he really means for us to eat and drink, and that what we eat and drink will really be him.

But Jesus’ words, in addition to being literal, are also figurative or metaphorical. For Jesus was not speaking of his earthly physical body and blood when he literally meant for us to eat and drink him. He was referring to his yet-to-be-revealed, risen, heavenly body. Because – as it soon became apparent – he did not leave his earthly, physical body behind for us to partake of. And so, he means for us literally to eat and drink his heavenly body and blood.

And, in addition to being literal and figurative, Jesus’ words are also mystical. When we literally eat and drink his heavenly body and blood, we abide in him – we live in him and he lives in us. When we eat and drink his risen body and blood, we have eternal life with him in God. And we will live forever in the fullness of life, in a state of blessed flourishing. Having refused Satan’s temptation, Jesus does not turn stones into bread to feed himself; he turns himself into bread to feed the world.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 19, 2018, which be accessed by clicking here. Jim Janknegt’s painting, The Bread of Life, is reproduced here with his permission. His many paintings can be seen on his website, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of the Bread of Life

 

Several biblical images related to the bread of heaven are beautifully illustrated by Peter Koenig in a painting titled, For the Year of the Eucharist.

On the left arm of the cross Koenig depicts Elijah asleep, while Queen Jezebel plots his death. After lying down to sleep an angel awakens him with a gift of bread, providing sustenance for his journey. Restored, he then goes on to holy Mt. Sinai, a place associated with seeing God, and the gift of the Covenant.

At the center of the cross we see Jesus, who is the bread come down from heaven, sharing the bread of life with his friends.

On the right arm we see Jesus as the true vine, and his Father as the vinedresser.

And below we see how we are the ‘ark’ of the Church, and that we are fed with the bread of life. These few references, chosen by Koenig from among so many in the Bible, remind us of the significance of bread as a gift from God, for the life of the world.

These insights help us appreciate how, as we learn from 1st Samuel, God replaces Saul with David as the King of Israel. The Lord tells the prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem, where Samuel anoints David as God’s chosen king. The name Bethlehem means ‘the house of bread.’ Of course, this same ‘house of bread’ later becomes the birthplace of Jesus.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” We know that mortals ate the bread of angels in ancient times. Yet, Jesus says that they “ate manna in the wilderness, and … died.” Unlike our spiritual ancestors, when we eat the bread of life today we shall live forever. We eat the bread of life when we gather to give thanks, in the Eucharist. And we partake of the true Vine. In every Eucharist, we join our Lord by offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, to his and our Father, for the life of the world.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 12, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The painting above, by Peter Koenig, is titled, For The Year of the Eucharist, and is reproduced here with the artist’s permission. Please visit the website for the Church of St. Edmund’s, Kettering, England, where this painting and others by him are displayed and available for viewing. Please click here for a link to it, and for further information concerning his fine paintings.