Review: Brad Roth, The Hunger Inside: How the Meal Jesus Gave Transforms Lives (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2022). $16.99
Whether by coincidence or providence, while engaging Brad Roth’s insightful book exploring various Christian traditions’ understandings of the “the meal Jesus of Nazareth gave his followers,” I also encountered Pope Francis’ Desiderio Desideravi “on the liturgical formation of the People of God.” I was profoundly heartened and touched that a Mennonite pastor and the bishop of Rome could both ground their reflections about the Eucharist in desire. Reading both in tandem has enriched my experience and understanding of eucharistic catechesis and mystagogy.
Roth’s first chapter reveals the trajectory of his entire book. Entitled “We Who Are Nothingness Can Never Be Filled”, the author concentrates on the many longings in human life disclosing an ultimate desire for God:
It’s not enough to simply claim that above all else human beings long for God…. [I]t could so easily be an unrequited longing, a desire for something that is simply beyond what’s available to us. Or we could imagine that we have within ourselves the capacity to sate our hungers…. [W]hile we may be able to recognize our truest hunger, we cannot meet it on our own terms. What we need is never taken, only received as gift. And Jesus in his love has given humanity a means to fulfill our longings: his table [p. 12].
In the same first chapter Roth clearly articulates both the organization and raison d’être of his work:
I’m writing because I want to lead us into a deepening understanding of the meaning of the Lord’s table. I intend to do that by taking a fresh look at how God is at work through the material universe and then interacting with the abiding themes of sacrifice, communion, hospitality, thanksgiving, remembrance, real presence, marriage supper, and mission…. [p. 8]
Here we have an outline of the topics and chapters that make up the book. What is distinctive in Roth’s writing is his attempt to acknowledge various trajectories in eucharistic understanding among the multiple Christian traditions. In an irenic and deeply appreciative way grounded in his own Mennonite heritage, he attempts to articulate differing doctrines and emphases from “high church” traditions (e.g., Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) and “more freeform” worship settings (e.g., Baptists, Anabaptists, Evangelicals). He does not claim to judge which tradition is “correct” on these issues, but rather invites all traditions to consider what insights from other traditions may contribute to a deeper experience of the mystery of the Eucharist:
My hope is that by hearing stories of how communion has challenged and formed and changed the lives of others you can start to see the deep power Jesus’ meal holds – and perhaps be open to some of its varied and ancient expressions [p. 22].
Throughout the work, Roth combines Scriptural insights, personal testimonies, stories from his ministry, and citations of poets, philosophers and theologians in a tour-de-force of what Catholics might call “catechesis” and “mystagogy.” The author invites us to adopt a symbolic-sacramental worldview, outlines how that symbolic-sacramental worldview plays out in the Church’s worship, and constantly reminds us that worship is a necessary response to the hunger for an encounter with the living Christ.
Supplementing and deepening these insights, Pope Francis’ apostolic letter highlights the desire God has for us, a desire revealed in creation and history, embodied in Christ, and made available to us through the Supper of the Lord:
We may not even be aware of it, but every time we go to Mass, the first reason is that we are drawn there by his desire for us. For our part, the possible response – which is also the most demanding asceticism – is, as always, that surrender to this love, that letting ourselves be drawn by him [art. 6].
Citing texts from Irenaeus, Leo the Great, Augustine, Paul VI, Francis of Assisi, and especially Romano Guardini, Pope Francis invites us to take seriously our symbolic-sacramental worldview:
So the question I want to pose is how can we become once again capable of symbols? How can we again know how to read them and be able to live them?… Above all we must require confidence about creation. I mean to say that things – the sacraments “are made” of things – come from God. To Him they are oriented, and by Him they have been assumed, and assumed in a particular way in the Incarnation, so that they can become instruments of salvation, vehicles of the Spirit, channels of grace…. If created things are such a fundamental, essential part of the sacramental action that brings about our salvation, then we must arrange ourselves in their presence with a fresh, non-superficial regard, respectful and grateful [art. 45-46].
And like Roth, Pope Francis reveals his desires for a renewal of the Church’s life throughout his apostolic letter by means of a renewed formation for the Liturgy and from the Liturgy. The letter’s concluding words articulate the pope’s heart-cry that seems to echo the passion Roth expresses in his own treatment of the Lord’s Supper:
Let us abandon our polemics to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. Let us safeguard our communion. Let us continue to be astonished at the beauty of the Liturgy. The Paschal Mystery has been given to us. Let us allow ourselves to be embraced by the desire that the Lord continues to have to eat His Passover with us [art. 65].
I cannot think of better guides to the renewal of the Church’s life through the renewal of the Church’s worship than these two authors. May their insights and passion bear fruit for future generations of Christians!