We begin in the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. Moses, speaking to the people God liberated from slavery, reminded them that they were led into the desert to test them. Only when they were “afflicted with hunger” did God give them manna (a food unknown to them). God then ordered them not to forget who liberated them from slavery and gave them safe passage through the desert, and gave them nutrition that made their passage possible. John’s Gospel recounts a speech from Jesus where he tells them he is the “living bread that came down from heaven.” Those gathered quarreled about this and Jesus claimed this: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” Later he claims that “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Two weeks ago I grumbled about preaching on large feasts. I’d like to renew that grumble. Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Bread of Christ, or in Latin, “Corpus Christi.” Around the globe today millions of Catholics will suffer through mindless homilies about how “we are all the Body of Christ,” and “food for the body/food for the soul.” They are true, but they miss the point.
I think we need to begin with the astounding the reading from Deuteronomy. When God freed the slaves from Egypt he had to have a plan. But Moses and the newly free slaves didn’t. They cared only for their freedom and fled from Egypt. But it didn’t take long for them to realize that their liberation and their passage through the sea didn’t guarantee their safe passage to the Promised Land. Simply put, they found themselves in a hostile land where lack of food and drink could well make their liberation moot. Escaping slaves probably don’t spend much time thinking about the ongoing relationship with those who made their escape possible. And frankly put, all they care about is freedom. From the comfort of our knowing their story we can take for granted that God would remain with them, but this may not have been something they even thought of. All they knew is that that they were no longer slaves in Egypt.
And so this reading from Deuteronomy recounts events from the 16th Chapter of Exodus and the retelling may water down the drama. And in fairness to Moses, he led a group of people with (at times) spotty memories. Once God slew the first born of the Egyptians, who then freed the slaves out of their grief, these newly freed slaves took almost no time to complain to Moses. When faced with the reality that they found themselves in a hostile environment without sustainable food and water, they waxed nostalgic over their lives as slaves. And in fairness, while slaves endure short and brutal lives, they don’t often die of starvation or thirst.
And so here, in the midst of their most dire need, God came through and provided them with manna and saved their lives. If not for that, there would have been no nation of Israel, no entry into the Promised Land, and ultimately no Christianity. Archeologists would have found hundreds of skeletons in the middle of a desert east of Egypt with no explanation of how they got there.
But instead God gave them what they needed to survive. But he also gave them the gift of hunger. This may sound strange, but hear me out. Had they escaped Egypt into a land “of milk and honey” they could easily have thought themselves self sufficient and not in need of God’s ongoing help. When God gave them the 10 Commandments and demanded their loyalty they could have paid lip service and feasted on the fruits of the earth. But God didn’t do that.
Instead Moses reminded them that “the Lord your God led you for forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, to test you and know your inmost heart.” “He made you feel hunger, he fed you with manna which neither you nor your fathers had known, to make you understand that man does not live on bread alone but that man lives on everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Several years ago I met a man who was dying of cancer. He had a strong faith and was a member of the Gideons. You may know them as the group that places bibles in hotel rooms; they do this because they recognize that a person alone in a hotel room may well feel isolated and alone. If a person in that state has only the mini bar and online pornography to turn to, he is unlikely to make good decisions. But, the Gideons feel, if he also has a bible to turn to, that may make a positive difference. I enjoyed meeting this man and talking about helping people anonymously. At the end of one of my visits he asked to lead the prayer. He prayed for all those who seek God with an honest and open heart, but he also said this: “And for those who do not seek you with an honest and open heart, give them the gift of hunger that this hunger will lead them to you.”
I’ve thought about this prayer often since, and I’ve thought about it in the context of Eucharist, and the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. Catholics of a certain age will remember that when we awoke on Sunday mornings we weren’t allowed to eat breakfast until after mass: we were required to fast from midnight on Saturday so that the first thing that “broke our fast” was Communion. That was fine if we went to the 7AM mass, but problematic if we went at noon. And honestly, by the time I came around, that rule was changed so that we needed to fast for one hour before receiving Communion.
But looking back I see some wisdom in that fast. The idea of hungering for the Body and Blood of Christ reminds us of how we need to hunger for God’s presence in our lives. We live in a world where food and nutrition occupy and important place in our discourse. Large parts of our globe suffer famine while (let’s face it) many of us live in places where we suffer from obesity. We live in close proximity to people who suffer what we call “food insecurity” and ironically may well be obese because they can only afford food that is high calorie/low nutrition. As I’ve said many times, I don’t want to wander too far in the political weeds, but we cannot separate how we are fed.
And this provides us the bridge to the Gospel reading. When Jesus talks about being the living bread that comes down from heaven he isn’t just talking about the “new manna.” Jesus isn’t talking about how I can be saved but how we can be saved. So much of his ministry revolves around how we treat each other that we cannot divorce this reading from that larger reality. We may call it “bread of life” or “communion” or “eucharist” but it’s the same thing: it’s what sustains us together.
The Body and Blood of Christ means nothing if it doesn’t call us to recognize that we depend on God but we are all in this together. We gather to share Communion because we matter to each other. We share Eucharist because we’re not in this alone.
And if we think we’re not hungry, we’re not paying attention.