Learning from our Eucharistic ‘fast’

Pentecost 11

1 Kings 19.4-8; Ps 34.1-8; Ephesians 4.25—5:2, John 6.35, 41-51

‘I am the Bread of Life’

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

I have had the privilege of doing a number of amazing and quirky things in the course of my ministry, and one of those was that – in my previous context in the City of London in England – I was honorary Chaplain to a number of livery companies, the continuing expression of ancient guilds which regulated trade and commerce in and out of the City since the middle ages.

Life for those guilds in the 21st century  has changed somewhat – there is no much call for tallow candles these days for instance – but they have continued to express an active interest and contribution to education in their or a related field, and also because of historical endowments, many are able to provide philanthropic support to many causes, often in the poorer boroughs of London.

One of my four livery companies was the Worshipful Company of Bakers, founded in the 15thcentury around the now defunct church of St Clement’s in order to regulate baking in the City, and to ensure proper standards were applied both in the quality of flour used and in the weight of the bread sold.  Wayward bakers who cut their flour with sawdust or whose loaves were not as heavy as advertised were taken around the city with a placard around their neck, allowing for the populace to express its ire.

In order to avoid any issues, many bakers took to adding an extra loaf for each dozen sold, from which we still use the expression ‘a baker’s dozen’.

As well as the pastoral care of a community composed still mostly of men, one of the duty of the Chaplain was to say Grace at formal City dinners.  The Bakers had developed their own form of grace over time – everyone attending had a bread roll at their place setting, and after an introduction, everyone was invited to break the roll while saying the words ‘Praise God for All’.  Simple and effective, inclusive of all faith, and probably the shortest Eucharistic prayer as it could be.

When Jesus subverted the traditional Jewish table prayers at his last supper, and creating a link between the Bread and his body, and the wine and his blood, he not only shocked the religious people of his generation leaving them with a conundrum that has fuelled the work of sacramental theologian every since, but he also left us with symbols that are acutely vivid to us because they are life itself.

Bread has been a staple in our societies since fire was invented and grain was ground, and table wine, very unlike the wine we know today, was often the safest drink to have when the purity of water was uncertain.  Having both meant to be able to live.  Having none meant a likely death.

When Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life’, he implies that he is as important a staple to us than those other two elements – at least for us in occidental cultures.

Over time, and with the development of Christianity as an organised religion with large gatherings in churches or meeting halls, the original items you would find at any table were changed into more practical little round wafers, and in some churches pre-Covid, the continuing tradition of a sip from a common cup, detaching ‘communion’ from the reality of a shared meal into a symbolic liturgical setting which could both illuminate some aspects of the divine reality as well as obscure the simplicity of Jesus’ message in the end.

As the incarnation of God, Jesus came to be a model for us, to show us the way, a way which was both steeped in a tradition and at the same time transcended it in order to reconnect those of his generation to the love of God, as he has been trying to reconnect all subsequent generations, all of us, to the reality of God’s loving presence in our lives.

As the bread of our life, the staple without which we perish, Jesus invites us to model ourselves on him, eating of his life giving wisdom and letting go of anything that does not bring life.  His gift to us has indeed been his flesh, torn on the cross, so that most of us may not have to go there, though some have and continue to lose their life for following him.

In an unexpected way, this past year has forced us to consider what communion meant to us, how important sharing the bread and wine was or not, and where and how differently we were able to find communion while being separated yet together on a zoom call.  Where was the bread from heaven, where did we find communion, how did we connect to God if not in this most intimate of way of literally consuming consecrated bread – bread around which we had prayed together and which for us – once broken – represents the real presence of Jesus among us.

Anglicans have a wide range of understanding about what happens in the prayer of consecration – from the memorial of Jesus’ last supper to the transformation of the bread on the altar into this Bread of Life – not a molecular change, but a change which transforms our community by its presence.  This is why we take great care and reverence in the liturgy about what happens, because in this act of breaking the bread, we encounter our Lord afresh, before being sent back again into the world.

And yet, we found our Lord present in many other different ways since the first lockdown, and there has been real Christian vitality in our community during that time.

Most of you will know that we have recently undertaken a congregational survey in order to understand where we all were spiritually after 18 months of lockdown and hybrid church, and in order to allow us to plan for the year ahead – thank you to all those of you who responded to this.

What has been striking in the early analysis of the responses is the fact that there are very few mentions of communion or the eucharist.  The ‘Eucharistic fast’ which we experienced forced us to recognise the Christ among us in different ways, and for many he was definitely found in community.

‘I am the bread of life’, said Jesus. ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have continued to be drawn to being in community together because it has provided for us with a continuing way of life – liturgically, spiritually, and practically.  Our spirits were fed, but by gathering online, it was also possible to continue to identify the practical needs of those among us.  When some looked like they might be close to going hungry or thirsty, something could be done by the community.  And in that way, the ‘Bread of Life’ was embodied, Jesus was present among us.

The challenge for us at this time when our community has evolved in a hybrid form, with some of us still joining worship online while others coming back into the Cathedral.  How best are we going to be able to satisfy spiritual and practical needs as the community finds itself in one sense together yet in another split apart.

And also, how are we going to be able to restart our mission to the world, that call of radical hospitality and witness to God’s love, welcoming the stranger in our midst.

One thing we have learned in the past 18 months is that there was no longer any predictability and that plans made today could be swept up the next.  Vaccination, variants and other variables make it really hard to discern the near future with any degree of uncertainty.

And yet, we continue to be called to be bread to the world especially as the world struggles in so many ways.

As we continue to be in crisis mode, focus on our core community is important.  But we also need to keep an eye on our purpose, our calling, and to recover old ways and find new ways to connect with those who desperately need to hear and experience the love of God especially at this time – in ways that have been tried and tested in the past – and in ways that embrace our new realities.

In this way, as we are gathered again with strangers and friends, we can be confronted with the diversity of God’s creation, support one another in our struggles, rejoice together, and grow in our own faith in the one who continues to be the Bread of our Life.


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