+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Today’s gospel is the second in a series that began with the miracle of the loaves and the fishes; in today’s passage Jesus continues to develop the image of bread to point to his identity. It may not be easy for us to understand the impact of the abundance of bread described in the earlier miracle on those first followers of Jesus. And it may not be easy for us to understand the impact of Jesus’ talk of “the living bread that came down from heaven”.
Bread for us is comparatively cheap and easy to find. And if the shops are out of bread, we can have rice or pasta or potatoes. Even during the brief time of shortages during the first lockdown, there was always something, even if it wasn’t always exactly what we wanted. Most of us can afford to eat meat whenever we want it, and fruit and vegetables in season and out of season. Bread has also become almost unfashionable in a world of gluten free, low-carb and “paleo” diets. But for the working poor of Jesus’ day (and throughout so much of human history, and in parts of the world still today), bread was the primary foodstuff, even at times the only affordable foodstuff, and it was earned for the most part through back-breaking labour. It is no wonder that people followed Jesus, thinking that He was offering an abundance of bread and a miraculous freedom from a life of hard physical labour.
The people struggle to understand what it is that Jesus is really trying to articulate. Jesus cares for their physical needs – that much is obvious from the fact that he fed them in the first place – but He wants to take them deeper, and reveal to them His identity not simply as a provider of food, but as the one in whom our deepest hungers and longings are satisfied.
Bread then in the context of today’s gospel is something vital and life-sustaining, something for which there is no substitute.
It is also an image that has rich resonances with the Hebrew scriptures.
Today’s portion of psalmody, from Psalm 78, some of you may perhaps remember as the dreaded psalm set for Evening Prayer on the fifteenth day in the Book of Common Prayer, the longest single section of psalmody set in the Prayerbook! It is long because it is a corporate retelling of some of the foundational stories of the people of Israel, particularly the story of the Exodus and the years of wandering in the wilderness. Today we have used that part of Psalm 78 which speaks of the story of Moses and the manna in the wilderness, a story with explicit connections to today’s gospel. And there are many other points of connection with the stories of the Old Testament, such as the feeding miracles of Elijah and Elisha, and the grain offerings and the showbread in the worship of the temple. Bread, the most basic of foodstuffs, is fundamentally the gift of God in creation, and so takes its place both in the foundational stories and in the worship of the people of Israel.
And so paradoxically, we might say that bread is something precious, but also something everyday. Jesus doesn’t describe himself as caviar or foie gras. His chosen image is bread, essential, life-sustaining but also commonplace, the food of the poor.
And here we are brought directly into contact with the mystery of the Incarnation. The evangelist begins his gospel with the famous prologue, declaring that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, and today’s gospel develops that theme, with Jesus describing himself as “the bread that came down from heaven”. Humility is at the heart of this mystery. The Word of God, the creative principle and force through whom all things came into being, the one who has dwelt from eternity in the bliss of the Father’s love, the Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us, a man like any other, an ordinary man, a carpenter’s son, useful, certainly, but commonplace and everyday.
The bread of life, the bread that came down from heaven, essential and precious, but ordinary and everyday – a miracle of humility.
And today’s gospel points us not only to the Incarnation but also to the Eucharist, to that breaking of bread which is the distinctive act of Christian worship.
The Eucharist is the heart of the Christian life. In the Eucharist, Jesus comes to us in humility, the bread that came down from heaven. In the Eucharist Jesus comes to us in humility but also in power; we believe that heavenly blessings can and do come to us through bread and wine, through flesh and blood. The outward sign is something ordinary, something commonplace, the man like any other, the bread which is the everyday food of the poor. But the inward reality is something precious, something wonderful, both the source and the satisfaction of all our hungers, of all our longings. In the Eucharist we are brought to Bethlehem, and it is surely no coincidence that the meaning of this Hebrew name is House of Bread.
And in the Eucharist we do not only contemplate but we also participate in the mystery of the Incarnation. Because each Christian life is like an Incarnation in miniature. Christ has no body on earth now but ours, and in the Eucharist we receive him, we are united with him, His identity becomes ours, and little by little His image is formed in us. In the Eucharist we discover our identity as both commonplace and precious, men and women like any other, and the beloved children of God.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.