This past Sunday, in church, I listened to the homily, and it was good. It was moving. It was about the Bread of Life – the Eucharist. I have a special relationship with the Eucharist, the Body of my Betrothed. Yet I found myself bothered by something the priest had said, quite in passing, about the Old Testament reading of the day, and it hasn’t let me go since.
The Old Testament reading was about Elijah. Just having come to my website, you must realize that I have a special relationship with Elijah, too. The biblical verses we heard on Sunday are quoted on my main page entitled “Mount Horeb,” but here is a brief recap:
Elijah was called from across Jordan to confront the powerful evil and to stand against false prophets. His life in serious danger, he ran into the desert and, starving in body and spirit, lost his strength to continue. Exhausted, discouraged, and frightened, he was waiting for death under a broom tree when an angel of God appeared to him with food and drink, with a caring touch, and with the word of hope, raising the prophet to his feet for forty days of journey to Mt. Horeb, where Elijah would hear the voice of God within his silenced heart. He would go on to speak and to serve. He is cherished in the Jewish tradition as one of the greatest prophets, worker of miracles, protector of the powerless, and defender of the Covenant. He is awaited as the hailer of and precursor to the coming of the Messiah. In the Old Testament, he never dies – in a spectacular display, he is taken up to the heavens alive, in a fiery chariot. Canonical Gospels too reserve an honored place for Elijah: understandably, Jesus with his miracles on behalf of the poor and sick is conjectured by some to be Elijah returned, and in the scene of Transfiguration it is Elijah, alongside Moses, who appears with Jesus on the hill.
This past Sunday, the priest made a passing point that what Elijah had gotten from God was not the real Bread of Life – that we must be grateful because it wasn’t available to Elijah but it’s available to us now. After Jesus.
This bothers me.
I say, the bread Elijah got was the REAL Bread of Life. The question is, what does that mean?
The priest’s comment was rooted in the Gospel reading, John 6:41-51, in which Jesus declares himself the bread of life, the living bread that’s come down from heaven, and that anyone who eats this bread will live forever and not die. He reminds his listeners that their forefathers ate manna in the desert and still died and thus provides the contrast on which our priest seems to have rested. Jesus also states in this passage that the bread he shall give is his flesh/body (Greek: sarx) and thus provides the tie to what we now know as the Eucharist.
This is all good. To my mind, a problem arises only if we make a conclusion from this passage that none but Christians – better yet, Catholics – have access to the Bread of Life or, alternatively and equally, to Eternal Life. It is in this context that I wish to take up the cause of Elijah, an ancient Hebrew prophet who heard the voice of the Divine many centuries before Christ and received the Bread of Life straight from the hands of God. Or so I say is the meaning of our scripture – since, as far as we can tell, John 6 is about as much a mixture of formula, legend, persuasive imagery, and historical oral tradition as the character of Elijah (or manna-eating Moses, for that matter). In other words, in both cases we are working with the language of myth. Therefore, I shall leave aside interreligious issues and most issues of historicity to stay within the biblical mythical framework, to concentrate on what the myth means to us. Then. And now.
To say that the language of both narratives is symbolic is an understatement. Taken literally, of course, neither of them works. Because it would be as impossible for Elijah to trek 40 days on a single portion of food and drink as it would be for Jesus to promise bodily immortality to his believers – and we would hope not. Even an apocalyptically minded sect at the time of the writing of John’s Gospel could not reasonably have put such words into Jesus’ mouth and meant them literally – the contrast between those who would eat the Bread of Life and the forefathers who’d eaten manna and still died had to concern spiritual death, not physical death. Straying from God. Sin. Darkness. Incomplete recovery from exile.
The Nazarene was a reformer of Judaism, and he called his disciples to a better understanding, a closer following in the prophets’ footsteps, a deeper comprehension of the Law – the spirit not just the letter of it. He called to the discernment of the underlying current behind the Covenant itself – God’s love that becomes the love of neighbor, inseparable. He tried to explain how that Love brings about the Kingdom of Heaven. It would not have occurred to him to say that the prophets of his Holy Scripture or his own companions in faith were unable fully to participate with God because Jesus of Nazareth was not yet dead. This – the Eucharist as we know it, the mystery with its roots in the Passover sacrifice and the Last Supper – took shape later. Soon, but later. Without him.
The mystery that John 6 is trying to illumine has something to do with the Eucharist and something to do with the spiritual renewal Jesus preached in a variety of ways. The author of John uses the metaphors of the living bread and of the living water and more – all the things that nourish without end. That is the meaning of the image of the Bread of Life: it is the nourishment that truly matters, it is that which feeds the soul, it is that which gives life as bread gives life to the body – but this gives eternal life because it feeds the eternal aspect of us as persons. The mystery that the author of John 6 is trying to illumine he is putting into terms and contexts that are his – newly Christian – but the mystery is bigger than that. The mystery he is talking about here is metanoia itself.
Metanoia, a Greek word for a change of mind, has come to mean “Conversion.” A change so profound, so irreversible, so complete that nothing will ever be the same again. A change of person. A true change, forever, without end, that won’t run out. A new path and new self that will not die. Experiencing metanoia is like opening one’s eyes to the sun that never sets. Like drinking of water that never stops quenching thirst. Like tasting bread that never stops feeding. The Bread of Life.
Was there conversion before Christ?
I will not insult you with an answer. You know where Christianity came from.
Was there failed conversion?
Let’s go back to the Gospels for a moment. The author of John does not bring up the Exodus by accident. Many places in the Gospels, but especially everywhere in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus rests on the foundation of the prophetic heritage and appears to the evangelists as the New Moses, leading his people back home into the embrace of God and out of spiritual exile, out of the slavery of sin. The Exodus becomes both the hailed and the failed original undertaking by God and Israel to bring His people home – the time of the giving of the Law, the formulation of the Covenant, but the time also when His people struggled to obey it, stopped short of the relationship they could have had, began their tortured history of righteousness and sin. They heard the voice of God, but they strayed. They ate manna from heaven, but they died anyway. Incomplete conversion. The Gospels declare a new Exodus, and this one brings home to God everyone who eats the Bread of Life and believes truly.
Notice that John 6 does not mention others who get fed by God directly: Ezekiel with his scroll, Elijah with his food and drink… Only the Hebrews in the desert, who, incidentally, had to pick their manna anew every day. It didn’t seem to last them. Elijah, on the other hand, if you read the passage, fits remarkably into the description of how the Bread of Life works: he eats once and is renewed more than physically but spiritually for a journey of a very symbolic length, 40 days – the length of epic proportions, of completion, of achievement, of divine connection (think Noah and the Flood, Moses on Mt. Sinai, Jesus in the desert, and more). After tasting this food, delivered without equivocation as part of God’s call, Elijah never wavers again – and, importantly for our discussion, never dies.
This is the same symbolism John 6 uses. This is the language of myth. Elijah and the Bread of Life.
And why not?
If the Bread of Life is metanoia – the touch of God – then we know it had been available before Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth. How many prophets have shown us that? After all, in the very same passage of this past Sunday Jesus says that everyone who believes has eternal life. That’s all it takes.
But even if we go back to the Sacrament-centered, high-christological imagery of Johannine literature, the Bread of Life that is the Body of Christ does not simply spring into reality on Easter Sunday. Or does it?
Was the Body of Christ in existence before the life of Jesus of Nazareth?
The Eucharist is many things, in part a memorial. We know the man behind the ritual, and the bread we take into our hands we take in a way no others do because we think, at the center of Sacrament, of him for whose human flesh we shudder in love, in pain, and in gratitude. This Church began with a man. Still, we know better than to think of the host as flesh. We don’t say “flesh.” We say, “body.” The Body of Christ is so much more than a memorial – it is Sacrament. It is mystery. Not just a symbol, certainly no reproduction of meat and blood. We feel Him with us with His humanity not gone but dissolved into His divinity, His human body not gone but transformed into body glorified. We say that His presence is real, but we do not say that it’s literal.
Eucharist is a mystery of confluence of the planes of reality, where divine, human, and earthly flow into each other, and that’s the whole point. What we call the Body of Christ is, thank God, not the flesh of Jesus but the eternal presence of Him with us, made touchable and visible in that moment, in that place. So we can feel our connection renewed. So we can feel Love coursing through our veins. So we can take in Life – so we can give life.
The Body of the Son, the eternal Word, is not the flesh of Jesus. The connection between them, mind-boggling and simple, is perhaps a topic for another essay. Yet as much as we don’t eat the flesh of a man but merge with the Body of Christ at Eucharist, that eternal Body permeates with real presence not only the future and the present but the past. It did not begin in the 1st c. Judah. It is – was – will be always. It is Sacrament – the protrusion of eternal reality into temporal universe. It is the Bread of Life.