When We Eat This Bread

by Andrew Forrester

Holy Thursday marks the end of Lent1 and our wanderings in the desert with Jesus. But it’s a bit of a strange day in that respect. Usually after fasting for so long our inclination would be to feast, to celebrate the love and mercy God has shown us as he carried us through difficult times. But Easter is still three days away, and before it comes we will betray, crucify, and bury our Lord.2 How is it that we should be feasting already? 

Jesus, as we see in the Gospels, knows everything that is about to happen to Him. He knows that His disciples will abandon Him as quickly as they dropped their nets to follow Him. He knows that the crowds whom He healed and comforted will insult and accuse Him. But even so, He has a feast in mind for us today. And so he calls us off the desert floor and into the upper room to dine with Him. 

Agnus Dei

Seder dinner is the occasion. The Jewish people had already been keeping the Passover for a thousand years to mark their rescue from slavery in Egypt. The enslaved Jews, as the book of Exodus tells, sacrificed a young, spotless lamb and smeared its blood on their doorposts. The angel that God commissioned to kill the firstborn of each of the Egyptian households would “pass over” any home that displayed the blood, and the dinner the night before consisted of that lamb, roasted and served with bitter herbs. Those households were protected as promised, and the Jews left Egypt, beginning their long journey to the promised land.3

The lamb is conspicuously absent from this dinner, though. In Matthew’s account we read that Jesus “reclined at table with the Twelve” and that “they were eating,” but with no mention of the sacrificial victim.4 It seems odd that Matthew, a Jew writing for a Jewish audience and one of the disciples sitting around that table, would leave out the most important component of his Master’s feast. 

But in the absence of that lamb, the Lamb of God sat before His disciples, preparing to give Himself. Christians call what is about to happen the Institution, but a better word for it might be Creation. Christ is about to create a new way of being for Himself.5 It was apparently not enough for Him simply to come and dwell among us. Not enough for Him to be merely our teacher, or simply the one we call “Lord.” All of that, yes; but more than that, Christ creates what he does in this moment so that He can be our food

Panis Vitæ

“As they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’”6

Christ gives Himself to His disciples in the form of bread, so that they can eat Him and be nourished by Him. There are no words to express how astounding this is; no way of conveying how it is the miracle of all miracles. God becomes a piece of bread and gives Himself to us to eat! The Creator of the universe suffers us to chew on Him, swallow Him, digest Him in our stomachs. And all of this to be as close to us as He possibly can be. So that He can make His way into our blood and be carried out to each of our cells. So that His presence can take root deep down in our bones. 

This Man, who once said to His disciples “I have food to eat that you do not know about,”7 has made Himself into bread so that we can eat with Him in His Father’s house. Through His words in the upper room, Christ makes spiritual food for the spiritually starved. And nothing less than this “would do for God in order to nourish his beloved, man, with divine life; so abysmal did God know man’s hunger to be. Christ knew it well for he had himself infused it into man.”8

For all of its history, Israel had been waiting to have this hunger satisfied. Their prophets, psalmists, and teachers knew that it would be, though they had not seen it. Nehemiah remembers: “You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger.”9 Asaph sings: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.”10 And Jeremiah preaches: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.”11

Corpus Christi

Jesus Christ, the Word of God, was found in the form of bread on that day, and we ate Him, and He became the joy and the delight of our hearts. That is the Church’s song as it dances down the road to heaven. We sing it from rooftops and street corners and public squares because the change that Christ affected in the bread has affected a change in us. 

By eating the body of Christ, the church becomes the body of Christ, each of its members joined to Him and to one another in mystical union. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”12 When we eat this bread, we fulfill Christ’s greatest desire for us: “‘that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.’”13

Sisters and Brothers, at Christ’s behest, may we meet Him in the upper room again this Holy Thursday and share in the meal He has made for us. And let us realize, as much as we are able, what we are doing as we approach the table, and follow the ancient liturgist’s advice: 

“Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and in itself consider nothing earthly; for the King of kings and Lord of lords cometh forth to be sacrificed, and given as food to the believers; and there go before Him the choirs of Angels, with every Dominion and Power, the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces, and crying out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”14

[1] Holy Thursday has marked the end of Lent in Catholic practice since 1969. Other Christian denominations end it on Holy Saturday or on Easter Sunday itself. 

[2] Matthew 26-27

[3] Exodus 11-12

[4] Matthew 26:20

[5] c.f. Chapter 5 of Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St. Matthew Vol. 4. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2018. [Leiva-Merikakis]

[6] Matthew 26:26

[7] John 4:32

[8] Leiva-Merikakis, pg. 148

[9] Nehemiah 9:15

[10] Psalm 81:10

[11] Jeremiah 15:16

[12] 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

[13] John 17:21

[14] “Let all mortal flesh keep silent.” English translation used in the Byzantine liturgy.

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