Over at First Things, Jane Sloan Peters has a lovely piece entitled “Bread Eternal,” that is, among other things, a glorious hymn to and theological reflection on bread.
Her essay prompts in me the thought that before we can appreciate the Eucharist, it helps to have some appreciation of bread. Indeed, some have argued that, in cultures where bread is not commonly eaten, other staple foods should be used for the Eucharist. I’m not ready to endorse that view, since I think the Eucharist links us to the historically specific practice of Jesus and not just to the universal human consumption of staple foods, but I do think that in reflecting on the bread of heaven we ought to do so against the backdrop of the role played by earthly bread in our lives: how the practice of eating bread links us to our ancestors, how the process of making bread might be thought of as a kind of contemplative poiesis, how bread typically comes in a form that suggests it is to be shared, often by being broken. It is hard—maybe impossible—to know what the Eucharist is if you don’t know what bread is.
Peters also notes in her essay the mention of bread in the “curse” of Adam in Genesis: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.” She does not go on to make much of this, but it struck me that for many people the struggle for daily bread is a sign of a fundamental alienation. For all the glories of this food, the work by which we obtain it is a perpetual reminder of the curse that follows upon our abandonment of God. The insecurity that attends our quest for bread shows us that something is not right with the world. We are fed with “the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5); we eat “the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2). Our earthly bread always represents toil and scarcity.
But there is another sort of bread: the bread of heaven. It is the bread that miraculously appears for the Israelites’ to gather as they journeyed through the wilderness, bread that they did not have to wrest from a ground afflicted by thorns and thistles but received from God as a gift. It is, above all, Jesus, the true bread of heaven now sacramentally present to us in the Eucharistic gift. This is the bread for which we have not labored, nor even gathered, but which gives itself to us: this is my body.
It is sometimes said that when our gifts of bread and wine are presented in the Eucharist, they represent our life and labors. And this is true. But we should not forget that the bread we bring is not the fruit of our triumph, but of our defeat; it is a sign of our cursed, anxious toil. This is the sign that Christ accepts from us and transforms into himself. Summing up the entire economy of salvation, in the Eucharist Christ takes our bread of sweat and tears and gives back to us the bread of heaven.