Over the last two weeks we have travelled together on a journey through the prayer taught to us by Jesus Christ, and which is common to all Christians – the Our Father. I said when we began that this would mean a departure from our usual practice of reflecting together on the Gospel of the day.
Whether by coincidence or the intervention of God, the line that we focus on today actually ties in perfectly with today’s Gospel (John 6: 35-59) and the antiphons for the Third Sunday of Lent, when we focus on Christ, the Bread of Life.
In our modern times bread has something of a bad press. Many people who are trying to lose weight might tell us that they’ve cut out all carbs, and if you offer them a round of toast, you might just see the same reaction that you would expect from Count Dracula on seeing a Crucifix. Environmentalists tell us how irresponsible we are for eating bread because of the greenhouse gases produced from growing wheat. And that’s before we even start on how gluten is slowly destroying all of our internal organs.
So poor old bread has is a having a bit of a hard time at the moment but it wasn’t always so.
Ever since the human race discovered agriculture millions of years ago – that we could till the earth and it would bring forth food – the way that we live has been completely transformed. We stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers, who moved on every few weeks once local supplies were depleted, and we began to settle, and build communities, which were fed by the grain and other things that we had planted in the earth.
Ever since then, bread in one form or another has been a staple of the diets of many communities in most parts of the world.
Before Tesco and Sainsbury’s gave us fresh fruit and vegetables all year long, there was bread. People might not have received all the vitamins they needed, but they could go to bed with a full stomach. In Old Testament times, when you received a visitor, you would bake fresh bread. We see this at the Call of Abraham in the book of Genesis, chapter 18, when he receives the three angelic visitors, and Sarah goes to make fresh bread as a way of offering hospitality, which was tremendously important in ancient cultures. In more recent times, when meat was in short supply, or too expensive for many people to afford, there was at least bread. And even today, I’m not so proud that I can’t tell you that there are some months, a few days before pay day, when I’m grateful for those 36p loaves of bread from Tesco.
All of which is to say that bread is the stuff of everyday life; not a luxury item, or something just for the wealthy and the elite, but something that has been common to most peoples and cultures around the world, and across the generations.
And it is this accessible stuff – this bread – that Christ uses to reach out to us.
We see this in all of the sacraments. God is spirit, and we are flesh, yet the will of God for us, and indeed the whole point of the Christian life is for us to grow into union with God. We call this theosis, and it is something that we are completely powerless to do on our own. So instead, God in his love reaches out to us, and this God, Who is spirit, became flesh, and blood, and bone, and united himself to our humanity. He lived and died as one of us, and conquered death as one of us. And having become part of the physical realm and made it holy, He uses the physical things of the world to make Himself accessible to us so that we physical beings can share in his divine life. Stuff that we physical beings can reach out and touch: water at baptism, oil at chrismation, simple bread and wine in the Eucharist – these are the essential things through we encounter God, and actually touch Him.
We recognise our need for this every time we pray the Our Father and we say the words “Give us today our supersubstantial bread”.
But what exactly does that mean? What is this supersubstantial bread that we pray for every day and which we heard about in the antiphons last night at Vespers? When William Tyndale, one of the English Protestant Reformers, translated this prayer, he used the word daily, following the example of St Jerome in the 4th century when he translated the Bible from Greek into Latin, and because that is what English-speaking people became accustomed to over the centuries, most translators into English ever since then – Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox – have continued to refer to “our daily bread”. And this conjures up a beautiful image of God as provider for our daily needs – something no Christian would want to deny.
But is this what the prayer actually says? John Wycliffe didn’t think so when he translated the Our Father into English nearly two centuries before Tyndale. He was along the right lines with “Give to us this day our bread above other substance”. To find what he was getting at, we must go back beyond English, and beyond Latin, back to the Greek of the New Testament. In the Greek of the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke the word used is not anything that means daily. Instead the word used in the Our Father to describe this bread is a very strange word: epiousios, which literally means “higher than the substance/nature”. That is to say, “Give us today the bread that is higher than the nature of bread”.
The interesting thing about this word is that it seems to have been completely made up by the Gospel writers. It doesn’t appear anywhere in any Greek literature or any other texts from that period or before.
Now, we will probably never know the word the Saviour actually used because He would have taught the disciples the prayer in Aramaic, and no original written form of this survives, but when Matthew and Luke wrote the Gospels in Greek, it must have been a problem for them that there was no existing word in the Greek language that could properly express the Saviour’s original meaning. So they invented a new one: epiousios. And the word that we use in our English translation – supersubstantial – means the same thing: higher than the nature. Interestingly, this word also comes from the Latin Bible of St Jerome, for although he translated the original Greek as daily in in St Luke’s Gospel, when he came to St Matthew’s Gospel, he translated the same word as supersubstantial.
So, translation lesson aside, just what exactly is this Bread that the Saviour told us to pray for – this Bread that is higher than the nature of bread? The overwhelming consensus of the church fathers is that this refers to the Body of Christ, which we receive under the appearance of bread. It begins as bread but at the Divine Liturgy, it takes on a new nature, one that is higher than the nature of bread – it is transformed into the Body of Christ.
It is not insignificant that we are told of Sarah baking bread as the Holy Trinity appeared in angelic form, calling Abraham as the father of a new community in God. Like the manna we heard about in last night’s reading from Exodus (16: 12-18), this is a type, a prefiguring of the bread that is to be at the heart of the New Covenant, and at every Divine Liturgy, at the prayers of the priest, and by the Amen of the whole gathered people of God, the Father sends the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the Body and blood of Christ. Once again we see the Holy Trinity operating with one purpose and in harmony, for the sake of our salvation.
How is this possible? Well, it is right there in the Saviour’s command. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we read that when the Saviour took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and they consumed it, He gave us the command to do this in memory of him.
This English word memory is very inadequate. When our ancestors in the Old Testament Church celebrated the Passover, they were not merely remembering those events from centuries ago, but believed that through their commemorative rituals, they were mystically present, in a very real and true way, with the ancient Israelites when death passed over them, and when they passed over from death and slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, into freedom in the Promised Land. The New testament Church inherited this, and right from the beginning Christians believed that at the Eucharist, the whole saving work of Christ is made present in that moment: the Nativity, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. And the bread and wine which we offer become the crucified, risen, and glorified Body and Blood of Christ.
It is no accident that, in all of the traditional eucharistic liturgies from around the world, the Our Father is prayed immediately after the prayer of consecration, and shortly before the people receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion. It is there because of the line “Give us today our supersubstantial bread”. In that moment, we are praying for the Father to feed us with the Body of Christ which has been made present only moments before.
This is a hard teaching for many people to accept when they first encounter Christianity, and ever since the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, many groups and individuals who use the name Christian no longer believe this, teaching that it is a symbol, or a representation. But this is nothing new. Even in today’s Gospel from John chapter 6, we hear that, when the Saviour taught this, many of his followers fell away on that day because the teaching was too hard for them to accept.
But as faithful Christians we must hold fast to the Saviour’s words. In today’s Gospel we hear Him teach his followers that He is the true Bread that has come down from heaven, and that the Bread that he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. This is the supersubstantial Bread for which we pray every day: the Bread that is higher than bread. We hear in verse 52 that many of the followers started to grumble, and asked, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ If He had just been using metaphor and they had misunderstood Him, surely this would have been the time for Him to correct them and explain that He was speaking metaphorically. However, the saviour doesn’t do this. Rather, in verse 53, He goes on to say:
Truly, truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in Me and I in him.John 6: 53-56
This is no metaphor. This is the untouchable, invisible, inaccessible God, out of love for us making Himself touchable to us through everyday, accessible things. And we receive his risen and glorified Body and Blood within our bodies, and so are given life, and He promises to raise us up on the Last Day. So those of us who belong to parishes which to refer to “our daily bread” can understand this to mean the Bread of the Day, the great Day of the Lord, when the eucharistic feast will be fulfilled in the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb of the kingdom of heaven.
I know this week’s reflection has been a little more intense than those of the past two weeks, but sometimes the truths revealed in the Gospel are just intense, and we shouldn’t be afraid to confront that. At least it has given us something to remember next time we hear someone having a downer on bread. In closing, I’ll leave you with some words from one of the great western church fathers, St Ambrose of Milan:
The Lord Jesus himself proclaims, ‘This is My Body’. Before the blessing of the heavenly words it is spoken of as bread; after consecration it is designated ‘body’. He himself speaks of his blood. Before the consecration it is spoken of as wine; after the consecration it is spoken of as ‘blood’. And you all say, ‘Amen’, that is, ‘It is true’. Therefore, what your mouth speaks, let your mind also confess; what you utter with your tongue, you must also feel in your heart.