My father Sam said, “We’ll get a picnic on the way.” I was around seven. My half-brother Joel about five years older.
Joel and I jammed our cane poles and our father’s rod and reel into our aging Dodge Rambler’s trunk and slid into our seats. Sam turned the key in the ignition and pointed the car toward Rocky Comfort Creek.
A few miles down the road, my dad pulled into a shabby country store with rusty signs for RC Cola and two ancient, weathered gas pumps out front. We all hopped out to buy our picnic: a pack of Saltine crackers and a tin of sardines in ketchup sauce.
We paid for our food and followed a two-lane county road through woods and fields until we came to a small bridge spanning the creek. Baiting our hooks with red wigglers we stood fishing for bream from a mud bank a few paces down from the roadside.
As the morning stretched toward noon, my father opened up the paper bag that passed as our picnic basket, rolled back the lid of the sardine can, and passed out the crackers. Each of us placed a couple of sardines between two crackers and munched as we fished.
Maybe this doesn’t sound like the Bread of Life to you. To tell the truth, it would taste like cat food on a cracker to me these days. And yet, as I look back, I’m beginning to believe that I was offered the Bread of Life that day.
In a few years our prospects improved. My mom bought my dad a tiny jon boat. We fished on the water for bass using open face reels and artificial lures. Our picnics featured country ham and biscuits.
Jesus never laid eyes on a biscuit. And no observant Jew’s menu would include country ham. But as the cicadas sang, the bullfrogs moaned, and the dragon flies hovered unsteadily above our fishing rods, ham and biscuits might just have been the Bread of Life. At least, that’s how it seems to me in retrospect.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35) He had just miraculously fed a large crowd with just a few loaves and a couple of fish. People scrambled after him to make him king and, once he had refused that offer, to secure a magical lifetime supply of groceries. In other words, they had missed the point of the multiplication of the loaves.
By feeding the crowd, Jesus is showing us who God is. God is the source from which we draw our very existence. Julian of Norwich’s famous vision of the hazelnut may help us understand Jesus’s point a bit more clearly.
In that vision, Julian held a hazelnut in her palm. A voice told her that the hazelnut represented the entire creation. Everything that exists. She was struck by how small and fragile the thing was. She wondered how such a frail, vulnerable thing could continue to exist. Why had it not simply passed into nothing?
The voice said, “Because God loves it. And that’s how everything comes into being. God’s love makes it happen.”
The divine love is a power that we are invited to open ourselves to. To partake of. To be sustained by, to be nourished by, and to be transformed by.
In Jesus we see that the life-giving, life-transforming love of God resides in the depths of even the most mundane of our very earthly moments. God invites us to participate in the divine life found in crackers and biscuits, in sunsets and starry nights, in smiling dogs and laughing babies, in lonely widows and homeless veterans.
When we partake of that love, it gradually forms us into the image of Christ. The bread of life. Eternal life.
Along with Lutherans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and others, Episcopalians place the Bread of Life at the center of our worship. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist (or Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper), we participate in the divine life through the simple act of saying prayers and receiving a morsel of bread.
There are various ways to understand the Sacrament. I don’t mean to dismiss anyone else’s grasp of what amounts to a mystery. But here’s what I understand to be happening at our altars.
As I stretch out my hands to receive that bread, I glimpse things as they really are. If even for the briefest of moments. God’s sustaining, nurturing, transforming love is pouring itself out to me in even the most routine and mundane moments of my life. Urging me to open myself to it. And to let that love pass through me to the world.
The Bread of Life is not just a blessed communion wafer handed out in a church building. It is cornbread, Wonder Bread, and ham and biscuits at our dinner tables. It’s a morning walk in the woods. A nap with your dog. It’s your ordinary life. If you know how to look.
Life—life as it has always been meant to be—begins with love. The Sacrament helps us to see what is already being given to us.