Food of Life

Food of Life

Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Giles Hibbert preaches on the rich variation of eucharistic traditions in the New Testament.

A scone, baked on hot stones, and a jar of water –

— on which Elijah travelled a considerable way. One can’t, however, help feeling that a jar of wine would both have been more nourishing and more appetising. And, considering the way in which such stories have a prophetic content in themselves, a jar of wine would also have been more appropriate as a pointer to the Eucharist of the New Testament.

Interestingly enough, although there is a clear ‘Bread of life’ discourse cited in today’s reading, there is no ‘Wine of life’ discourse anywhere. In fact the New Testament is quite extraordinarily silent about wine. One has to assume, both by way of back reference to the Passover and its customary expression (for there is no reference to wine in the original Passover ritual), together with Jesus’s passing comment on ‘the fruit of the vine’ in Luke, that it was wine not water that was used in that primal Eucharist.

There is interestingly a ‘Water of Life’ discourse earlier in this same Gospel. The words,

Whoever drinks this water will thirst again, but anyone who drinks the water which I give will never thirst ? it will well up to eternal life inside him,

spoken by Jesus to the ‘Samaritan woman’ are remarkably similar to

Your fathers ate manna in the desert and are dead ? I am the living bread that has come down from heaven, anyone who eats it will live for ever.

No mention here of wine or blood.

John’s Gospel does, however, have one extremely startling reference to water from the purification jars being turned into wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana. Scholars have argued either way as to whether this

first of the signs given by Jesus ? revealing his glory

has a Eucharistic significance. But this debate pales into insignificance, I think, because this, together with the traditions surrounding the Passover, when put together with the words given to Jesus in today’s reading –

The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world

– has ensured that we experience as ‘real’ the consecrated wine of the Eucharist as the blood of Christ poured out on Calvary for our salvation.

That ceremony, as found in tradition of Paul and the first three Gospels concering the Last Supper, proclaims both the liberation of God’s People from bondage, their being formed into a coherent Nation, and the expectation of a future Messianic banquet. We have here a sign (sacrament) of the life of the Spirit, through the Christ, enlivening his Laos — the Church.

But the startlingly different presentation of John contains the earliest ‘description’ of a ‘eucharist’ after the Resurrection that we have, in the primitive and almost touchable account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to Peter in Galilee (foretold in Matthew 28:16). The food shared was bread and fish. Might this not well have been the menu at the Last Supper in John?

And then there are all those incidents of bread and fishes in the Messianic feasts of all four Gospels where the bread was multiplied and the Eucharist augured. It is, however, not all that easy to keep fish in a tabernacle.

If the accounts of the Resurrection appear so muddled and inconsistent — to our enrichment, I suggest — why should we want the concept of the Eucharist to be so clear cut? Presumably because it has to be ‘acted out’ in the liturgical life of the Church with some clarity and discipline. But in this we risk losing much.

It was bad luck that Elijah was not provided with a cru noble, but nevertheless what he received was ‘the food of life’. It may only have lasted him till he got to Sinai, but that forty days represents, backwardly, the years in which Israel was being formed as a People, and forwardly the ‘time of the Church’ in which the Food of life is represented — made real to us — in the sacraments.

Readings: 1 Kings 19.4-8 | Ephesians 4.30-5.2 | John 6.41-51

fr. Giles Hibbert was a member of the community at Blackfriars, Cambridge. May he rest in peace.