This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice… AMEN
As I was writing, I had the Meditation’s splendid image of bread on a Mexican painted ceramic plate with me. The bread’s a risen, glazed loaf with a cross of bread worked onto its top, and a small, almost roll-size one too. The plate has a cobalt blue and white edge, and a large 8-pointed star filling the circle. It’s outlined in gold-yellow, and its points are cross-hatched with blue and white squares filled with red dots. There’s more geometric and leaf painting to fill the plate with joy and color, but a picture really is worth a 1000 words. The bread sits on the center’s design of stylized leaves, so that the bread appears as the fruit of its vine, the flower of its plant.
We begin today several weeks of John’s Bread of Life Discourse, and the Meditation—thank you gifted writer—tells of the goal of working together as a community, that being the product of Jesus as Bread of life, as well as its producer. The psalm’s core emphasizes the same point, “Make me hear of joy and gladness…”Create in me a clean heart…Give me the joy of your saving help and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” The psalm also explains its guess of ways to achieve that joyful spirit: ”Purge me from my sin…wash me…hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities… that the body you have broken may rejoice; cast me not way, and take not your Spirit from me.” The psalm offers a call/response pattern to living life to the fullest, reaching out towards holiness and goodness, while correcting inner flaws and sins. It emphasizes, though, the joy to aim for, to live into, and is God’s eternal on-going gift.
Dour Protestant/Catholic emphases on sin, wickedness, and worse, have made it hard to welcome religious questions around the Bread of Life. If our focus on sinfulness weren’t already bad enough, our image of the bread of life, given out as traditional wafers would never appeal to anyone as Real Bread, let alone bread of Life or bread for any Journey. We’re fortunate here to have bread that at least looks like bread and tastes good, but most of what we receive at Eucharist, however much it succeeds in theology and metaphor, is not great as real bread, making a harder stretch for Real Presence.
“So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly , I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it was my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” We don’t see Jesus in person, and we’re given special food, but not what we really associate with bread. Perhaps harder, because it’s less metaphorical, is this: “’What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
I would guess that each of us is eager to do the works of God, even the work of God. We can believe in Jesus historically, and we believe his parables, proverbs, and sayings. We know him as a prophet, and we “get” that he lived, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. I would further guess that for many of us, at least from time to time, we think that doesn’t really count as believing in him whom God sent, because we’re not so sure what that means in practice. If it’s easy, and Jesus is there, with and in us, regularly, in reality, and in our own bodies, why don’t we, ourselves, act better? If we’re really not understanding how Jesus is real to us, how can we reach a physical, emotional, functional working reality of that mystery?
On Wednesday, Anthology, a 4-part women’s group, sang here. First they sang Pachelbel's Canon in four parts, no bells, whistles, or words. Then they sang Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. I’ve heard those four fresh-faced and voiced women before. There they stood in plain dressy black elegant dresses. It was humid and public, and there were the usual assortment of regular-ole humans in the room, no one special saintly, or angelic, but for me at that moment, mystery transcended it all, and I knew a form of the bread of heaven. People with sharper shrewder hearing may have heard regular music, or even music with flaws. Too bad for them. It’s what feeds me and makes me know the reality and mystery of creation and the presence of God. Those moments make me stop, rejoice, and give thanks. How does that connect to knowing Jesus as the one sent by the Holy One? Could I have been either a Jew or an atheist and have had the same experience? Two clear answers to that question. Yes and No. Yes, I’d guess they could have heard music that was way-lovely and touched a chord in them, without their being able to name what that was. The chord it touched in me, I identified with Jesus’ presence for me, light sent from God to me through his Son, then and there in that music. It wasn’t that it was other-worldly, but that it was real women, real music, real work, genuine harmony, real listening together to weave sound in collaboration and individual near-perfection, careful presentation, and generous reaching out to each of us there— both—from those women with their whole being to each of us. It was for me an incarnation of holiness in its way, an invitation to go out of, beyond myself, and stretch towards other, and pure goodness. And then as my mother used to say, “It gets back to old socks.” That’s why the need for, and gift of, the regular refresher communal bread of life.
What gets to you? What feeds you? I’ll bet not Wonder Bread, though if starving, Wonder Bread and peanut butter might well do, in its way. Other? Richard Stoltzman’s “Begin Sweet World,” Samuel Barber’s “The Coolin’,” the young Joan Baez’s sweet voice? Poetry, fiction? The scent of unseen honeysuckle? Unexpected time with a dear friend? How about the five small women gymnasts hugging and supporting each other through all their sport requires of them? How about the open smile of Missy Franklin and that she comes from and swims in Aurora Colorado, and what that smile does for her devastated community, or the might, focus, perseverance of Michael Phelps. Our instinct is to say, That’s not possible, how unreal,” but those amazing feats of the human spirit and its powers of focus and endurance are exactly real and only human.
I think we think Bread of Life, the good, true, sustaining life energy that we get flashes of, jolts of, boosts of, sights of, will be something boring, brown, dry, and drearily churchy to be Jesus as the Bread of Life. Give the Holy One a break; give the Creator of All, the One who leapt from the grave after three days harrowing hell, more credit. Give the Creator of ripe peaches some credit. Going home one evening, I saw my granddaughter being carried up to bed. I waved and she’s just mastered waving back, and she waved and waved and snuggled into her mom. Aside from her inhaling her first chocolate frosting up her nose, that was as sweet as it gets.
“These are a few of my favorite things” to coin a phrase. Each makes me stop and give thanks. Each makes me know God’s majesty, creativity, and perseverant persuasiveness. No lists of such delights were enough for any generation of people, so God tried personal interaction. Jesus living as God’s word in action, lived God’s curiosity and hopefulness as a human. His weariness and need for respite is a way I know he was real. (We never see Apollo or Zeus so weary to go off alone to regroup,) but Jesus, like us, needs refueling. Unlike us, he’s ready to return to work, back to being the same yesterday, today, and always.
My list of what makes me feel connected into that stream of God’s mystery between the Creator and creation, the Savior and the saved, my individual self and the one who sometimes can work with and for others, won’t be yours. The thwack of a walk-off hit with Ortiz’ wrap around smile may not be on your list, but your hopes and curiosity may not be mine.
Here are the deeds of God: to believe in Jesus as the One who sent him, so that speaking the truth in love, we grow up in every way into him who is the Head, into Christ…[to] promote the body’s growth in building itself up in love. One of the young divers asked a coach to train her. “Why do you want me to train you?” To go to the Olympics, maybe even get a medal. “No.” Later he asked again, “Why do you want me to train you?” “So I can win the gold.” Right.
Why train anyone not aiming for gold? Why not admit our work for others, our work to better ourselves and to enjoy God forever is our going-for-gold, and we’re always offered good company and bread for our journey and our gold is always assured for all: to be with Jesus forever: Good news.
© Katharine C. Black 5 August 2012 St. John’s, Boston