No one disputes the importance of food for human life. Food, however, is important not only for mere sustenance. We also use it for celebration. God fed his people in the desert with bread and water, two of the most sustaining foods for human existence. In this care for the people the emphasis is on maintenance of life. As a symbol for celebration we see food used in the story of the prodigal son as a way to acknowledge the son who was lost and is now found and who was dead and is now alive. In this story the emphasis is on festivity for a great event.
The first reading from Proverbs gives us an image of a grand lady preparing a banquet for guests. Like all holiday preparations in our own experience, everything must be just right. The author of Proverbs calls his grand lady “Wisdom.” The extravagant meal has been prepared, and she sends out her maidens to the invited guests. Whoever is simple or lacks understanding can come and feast from the table of Wisdom. She tells her guests, “Forsake foolishness that you may live, advance in the way of understanding.” (Pr. 9:6) In this image the grand food becomes a symbol for learning the true wisdom of God’s goodness and greatness.
The Gospel passage from John is also concerned with food. This selection is from Jesus’ lengthy discourse on the bread of life in Chapter Six. The speech occurs shortly after Jesus has multiplied the loaves and fish in order to feed a multitude of people. When Jesus talks about the bread of life he first speaks of simple food used for basic nourishment rather than elaborate food used for celebration. This food is akin to the nourishment God provided the ancient people in the desert. It is meant to sustain rather than to delight. Ultimately, however, Jesus identifies himself with this bread signifying that it is both the most basic form of nourishment and also food worthy of extravagant celebration.
Jesus reveals that, “Unlike your ancestors who ate [the manna] and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” The new bread of life far exceeds anything lady Wisdom provides for her elaborate banquet.
Eating the bread of life changes the one who eats it completely and totally. St. Augustine says that when we consume ordinary food, the food becomes part of us. When we consume the Eucharist, we become part of the food we consume. That is, the Eucharist transforms us into Christ himself. As Paul says in the reading from Ephesians we are filled with the Spirit. We give thanks, “always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.