Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bread, Cross, Christ

St. Paul says in First Corinthians (1:18) that the Cross is the power of God for those who are being saved. The mystery of the Cross is present in the Gospel account of the multiplication of the loaves, though it will seem hidden, if one looks only superficially. The event, as described by the evangelists, is the miraculous feeding of five thousand men in the wilderness. Jesus took a small amount of bread and fish, looked to Heaven, blessed and broke them, and gave them to the apostles, who then gave them to the crowd. There were even 12 baskets of leftover pieces.

God fed the Israelites in the desert many centuries before that, also in a miraculous way. Paul says in First Corinthians (10:4) that it was Christ, the Son of God, who was with them invisibly in the desert. Now that the Son had become visible as man, he again manifested the gift of God to his people. But He took it a step further, an indispensable and extremely significant step. St. John tells us that the people themselves made the connection between Jesus’ feeding the multitude in the desert and Moses giving them bread from heaven, the miraculous manna. That gave Jesus the opportunity to speak to them of the true Bread from Heaven, which is his own flesh, which He would give for the life of the world.

Here is where we first see the mystery of the Cross. The gift of the flesh of Christ, the divine and life-giving Bread, can be communicated only insofar as it is a fruit of the Cross—of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. The multiplication of ordinary bread to feed multitudes is but a symbol or prefiguration of the universal availability of the Holy Eucharist after the Resurrection of Christ and the establishment of his Church in the Holy Spirit. But the Eucharist is itself much more than a miraculous change from ordinary bread to the flesh of Christ—as astounding as that is in itself. The Holy Eucharist is the fruit of the Cross, and hence is a mystery of forgiveness and love, of the transforming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is also in itself a proclamation of the Gospel, for the essence of the Gospel is manifested and communicated through the Eucharist. Jesus gave Himself up to death for the forgiveness of our sins, as he explicitly said at the Last Supper: “Take, eat, this is my body… Drink of it, all of you; for this is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

Jesus must have looked with some satisfaction upon the crowds He had fed by multiplying the loaves and fish. For He knew that the Bread He would soon give would be able to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the whole world. Jesus made sure that the disciples gathered up all the fragments of the miraculous meal He had provided, “so that nothing may be lost.” If even this symbol of his divine gift was to be treated with such care, how much more, then, ought we reverence the Holy Eucharist, and approach with deep adoration! Yet how little reverence is paid to his presence during the Liturgy or in the Tabernacle! A friend of mine often grieved over finding consecrated Hosts in the pews and even on the floor of a church in San Francisco. And I remember when I was visiting someone in the hospital (I was out of town, so I was not able to bring the Eucharist myself), I went to receive a Host from the hospital chaplain so as to give Communion to my friend. I went to the office and his assistant was there, who nonchalantly pulled out a pyx and removed a Host, which she then somehow dropped on the floor. At hearing my little gasp, she just said, “Don’t worry; it’s OK.” I thought, and probably should have said: “No, it’s not OK. If you drop the Body of the Lord on the floor you reverently bow down to recover it, and then repent of your carelessness and irreverence!” And so it goes on. When the communion rails or other separations between sanctuary and nave come down; when anyone—man, woman, child—can walk into the Holy of Holies at will; when laypeople, inadequately formed and inappropriately dressed, can saunter up to the tabernacle and open and close it as if it were their fridge at home, then of course the message is given to everyone that no reverence is required for the Holy Eucharist.

But let us hope and pray for better things. And let us, who do recognize the greatness of his inexpressible gift, give thanks that He who once multiplied bread in the wilderness, multiplies the gift of his saving and sanctifying Body and Blood for us in this wilderness of our earthly exile. Let us give thanks to Him who, as the Psalmist says, “gives food to those who fear Him.” We are invited at every Byzantine Liturgy, immediately before Communion, to “approach with the fear of God and with faith.” This approach with holy fear—which is the deep reverence and awe that we owe to the Bread from Heaven—and with faith in his mercy and love, will enable us to bear fruit and to live continually in the grace of the Holy Eucharist, which is the grace of the Gospel of the Cross, the Resurrection, and eternal life.