18th of the Year, 1st Aug 21
“Let them eat cake,” is said to have been spoken by a French princess, famously and wrongly attributed to Marie Antionette, the wife of Louis XVI, King of France until he was guillotined in the French revolution. It was a phrase that was meant to reveal just how ignorant the aristocracy was of the problems of the poor, who had been begging for bread. On discovery that the peasants had run out of bread, the French princess replied, “Well, let them eat cake.”
I want us to have a think about this image of bread this morning. Bread is a staple of our diet and it’s great if you’re really hungry and not very wealthy because it fills you up quickly, removing the hungry feeling that gnaws away at you. The English upper classes of the nineteenth century would famously eat sandwiches but with very thinly sliced pieces of bread so as not to indicate that they were too hungry because that would be far too common and they needed to assert just how posh they were.
“I am the Bread of life,” Jesus says in our Gospel today from John 6. His listeners can’t get over the story we heard in our first reading and in our psalm, of the Israelites eating manna in the wilderness once they’d left Egypt and received the Ten Commandments, led by Moses. The manna mentioned in our first reading from Exodus was a fine substance produced by insects from that part of the world. As it drips off the leaf it falls to the ground and cools. When the sun comes out, it melts because it has a low melting temperature. This is why the Israelites were told to go out first thing in the morning. Isn’t it amazing that when God created the Heavens and the earth, He made something that would furnish the people of God in the wilderness in his way!
Because it was God’s gift to His people it was described as we heard in the Psalm as the bread of angels. There’s a wonderful phrase in that psalm: “Mere men ate the bread of angels.” What a privilege! (Of course, though, it didn’t stop them grumbling.) It’s interesting how ordinary this food is, this bread is, this manna with which they make simple cakes: not cream cakes, you understand. Even the quails they’re also given are exhausted birds, easy to catch as they land in the wilderness tired out midway through their journey for the winter months to Africa and then return in Autumn to the northern hemisphere.
Note God doesn’t appear as a genie and say, “Tell me your favourite foods and I will provide these for you,” no. When we wonder why God is not answering our prayer, it’s often because we’re not really praying, we’re just giving Him a wish list. Prayer, in contrast, is the union of the soul with God. He gives them the boring old stuff they actually need and they don’t really thank Him for it. Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life,” the normal, boring, substantial, filling, stuff of life. Not the Turkish delight of life, not the expensive chocolates of life, not the fancy cocktail of life, the Bread of Life. Its ordinariness means it is well adapted to becoming the food that nourishes God’s people in the Mass. There’s the great temptation that we want life to be glitzy as if we were on a TV programme constantly, wanting the world to revolve around us.
And the church, as the faithful spouse of Christ, takes care to ensure that the Lord’s command is followed to take bread and wine and do this in memory of Him. We can’t use gluten free bread for Mass because it is not bread as our Lord would have known it. For the same reason non-alcoholic wine cannot be used. Thankfully people can take either of the sacred species, the bread or the wine and receive Christ fully, His Body and His Blood. This has been a particular relief during these months of pandemic. With similar logic, we cannot use individual cups for the Precious Blood because Jesus didn’t and St Paul in explaining the Mass explains there is a fellowship and union implied by sharing one cup (I Corinthians 10:16).
Bread is often crumbly. When our Lord feeds the five thousand and indeed the four thousand in the Gospels, the Apostles are sent out to gather up the fragments. We’re told that after feeding the five thousand, they gathered up twelve basketfuls and after the four thousand were fed, seven basketfuls were left (St Mark 8:19-21). Nothing was to be lost. This meal, which prefigures the Mass, also reminds us of Christ’s love for us, His Church. Hear what our Lord says later on from the same chapter, St John 6, “And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day,” (verse 39).
This is an individual care for something which is delicate. We might recall the verses in Psalm 139: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Yet, we are so callous with life: we snap at those whom we barely know because it costs us nothing and they mean nothing to us. People think ending life is fine for those who are not yet born and those vulnerable because of their fragility and weakness. Our own life can be chaotic and striving after the wrong things, which is also a sign that we don’t really appreciate our own beauty in the eyes of the Lord and the care with which He’s formed us.
This care for life, is a care that should also be shown to the Bread and the Wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. To help us with this, there are some great Biblical images for us to reflect on as we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Think, for example, of Mary holding her baby Son with care and tender love yet firmly: no one was going to knock her child out of her embrace. Think also as she and others gathered at the Cross and took the dead body of Jesus to lay Him in the tomb, given by Joseph of Arimathea. These two images of our Lord’s body, vulnerable because of youth, vulnerable because of death are how we are to treat the Holy Communion given to us. Indeed after everyone’s received Holy Communion we see the priest or deacon carefully cleansing the vessels that no crumb remains in them. Sadly because of the pandemic receiving straight on to the tongue is discouraged but in ordinary times this is still the safest way to ensure nothing untoward happens to the Lord.
I witnessed such an event the other week at a Church I was visiting. A parent with her child, who was probably about 8 years old, went up to receive Holy Communion. They seemed to be known to the priest and the son received a blessing from him. The parent held on to the Host, the bread of the Mass, as she walked away from the altar and gave the Holy Communion to the boy. I went and told her off, needless to say. And there are two problems with what she did: first, she is not licensed by the Bishop to administer Holy Communion and secondly, the boy has not been permitted to receive Him. The arrogance of thinking we know better that the rules of the Church grievously scars the Lord’s Body. The people of God back in Exodus 16, we’re told, are confused by the appearance of the manna, “What is that?” they ask. Indeed the word manna comes from the phrase they use, “What is that?” We must not be similarly confused about what is given to us at the Mass, the bread angels, the Body of the Risen Lord, given for the life of the world.
Another aspect of the ordinariness of bread comes out in the Lord’s Prayer, which I hope we all says several times each day: “Give us this day our daily bread.” When God gives the people manna of old in the wilderness, it is given enough for each day for five days and then on the sixth day enough is given for two days so that rest and worship can be maintained on the Sabbath. “Each day the people are to go out and gather the day’s portion,” Moses is instructed by God (Exodus 16:4). This is why the Mass is offered each day: it is our daily bread. But the concept of daily bread is also about there being enough given. “Strive first for the Kingdom of God,” Jesus teaches, “and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own,” (St Matthew 6:33-34).
So, take time, my friends, to consider what we are being given at this Mass. The ordinariness of bread is not to blind us to the awesome presence of God, but remind us rather that He is to be part of our life each day, and the foundation of the life of the whole world. Amen.