Opening the Word: Eucharist as waybread

J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is suffused with Catholic imagery. The elves, in particular, function as visible signs in the great epic of a forgotten, once sanctified cosmos.

Thus, it’s not accidental that the elves offer to the pilgrims in the fellowship sanctified bread for the journey. Lembas, or waybread, does not decay. Eating it, hobbit and dwarf alike are sustained on the longest of journeys. Those with evil will find the sweet bread noxious — they’re unable to eat it.

In John 6, Jesus gives himself as a kind of waybread to the disciples: “‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever ’” (Jn 6:51).

But what does it mean to call Jesus the “living bread”? As we’ve heard over the last several weeks, all that Jesus says, all that he does in the Gospels, feeds his disciples with the sweetness of divine wisdom. Each time we hear the Scriptures at Mass, wisdom proclaims to us, “Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!” (Prv 9:5).

Christ is that living bread of wisdom whose very words drip with sweetness.

To open the Scriptures, to read them prayerfully, is to sup at the banquet prepared by the living God.

Yet, think for a moment about hearing the Scriptures. In any proclamation, no matter how wondrous, there is a distance between the word proclaimed and the speaker.

Lovers enjoy speaking on the phone with one another if that’s the only option. How much better to be in each other’s presence, to share an embodied experience of love?

Jesus thus gives his very flesh, his very blood to drink: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6:56).

Divine wisdom is not only a word but also the enfleshed and embodied presence of God dwelling among us. The bread of life feeds us, giving himself to us under the signs of bread and wine.

When we eat his flesh and drink his blood, notice that we remain in Christ. We dwell with the living God. Wisdom is not an abstract principle, a matter of interpreting the written word, but an incarnate encounter with Love.

Like the waybread of the elves, the Eucharist is that bread of life that sustains us on the journey.

The promised eternal life is not simply a matter of a heavenly destiny for the one who eats his flesh and drinks his blood. Rather, right now, even at this moment, we experience a foretaste of eternal life with God.

That’s why we Catholics take the Eucharist so seriously. We are not simply celebrating a meal that brings us together, a reenactment of the Last Supper.

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Instead, Jesus Christ is offering the fullness of himself to us, bringing us into a foretaste of heaven.

The danger, for us sinners, is that we forget the wonder of this gift. We cease savoring the divine wisdom of God offered through the signs of bread and wine, and so we schlep to the front of the Church thoughtlessly.

If the Eucharist is our waybread, that which leads us into eternal life with God, then we cannot be thoughtless. We cannot approach the altar with hardened hearts, desiring anything but union with God.

To eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood means approaching the Eucharist with longing. As pilgrims on a journey, the Eucharist is a moment in which we learn to taste and see the goodness of God.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.