A reflection on the readings for Sunday, July 25, 2021 — the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true… For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
–St. Justin Martyr, On the Eucharist, First Apology
In his second-century writings, St. Justin Martyr provides one of the earliest and clearest defenses of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Over the subsequent centuries theologians, pastors, and mystics alike have reaffirmed this core tenet of Catholic teaching.
In every era of the Church’s history, from the time of Christ to the present day, the doctrine that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ has been perennially doubted and challenged. As important as it is to announce to the world the reality of the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Christ like St. Justin, there is another simple message shared by the great martyr—one of the first words Justin uses to describe the Eucharist is food.
How often do we even consider the reality that of all the substances God could have utilized to make himself physically present in his creation he chose bread and wine?
The enduring place of God’s sacramental presence could have been a temple, as in pre-70 AD Israel, it could have been a statue gilt with gold, rubies, and emeralds, it could have been a cathedral or monument or any other physical object in the world. He chose none of these things to bring us his body and blood, however, he chose bread and wine.
The significance of this divine choice was not lost on St. Justin Martyr, nor should it pass us by without further reflection. The institution of the Eucharist is the final and most decisive in a long series of episodes in which God or God’s agent provides sustenance for hungry followers.
The image of God feeding his people is one that surfaces again and again throughout scripture. In the book of Exodus, we hear of God’s people wandering aimlessly through the desert, bickering and complaining, only to be fed with wild pheasants and bread from heaven in the form of manna. In today’s first reading we see the prophet Elisha in the city of Gilgal, a place where Israel was uniquely aware of its history, to provide and energy for the starving guild of prophets. In the Gospel today we are treated to the familiar story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes to miraculously feed the 5,000. These instances of satiating physical hunger are, of course, symbolic of a much deeper reality.
In the wilderness of Exodus it is not simply food that the people are seeking, but meaning, direction, and identity as they forge a new path for their nation. Elisha’s visit to Gilgal was not merely about ending a famine but reminding his fellow prophets of their legacy and their role in returning Israel to the righteous ways of its ancestors. The preaching of God-made-man in John’s gospel, of course, provides his followers with much more than earthly nutrition, but bread from Heaven. Physical hunger is the consistent analogy used to represent the deep longing for the divine that is in the heart of every human being, and the physical food that is offered serves as an analogy for the satisfaction that comes only from a relationship with God himself.
This spiritual hunger we hear of in scripture is not a relic of a bygone era, it is not an artifact of days past. Today, as ever, the hunger remains. Just as we are often drawn to satisfy physical hunger with food that may temporarily satiate us, but provides no lasting nutritional value, many of us attempt to fill the spiritual hunger in our hearts with cheap imitations of God.
When trying to meet their deepest longings some become trapped in cycles of addiction; others try to fill the hunger with work, social capital, or political involvements; still others place too much hope in self-help systems or pseudo-spiritual ideologies as answers to their hearts’ greatest desire. These attempts at finding meaning or purpose may have some value and may even satisfy us in the short term, but ultimately none can offer us that for which we truly long.
If, then, the Eucharist is the final and most decisive in a long line of God’s interventions that provide for his people’s spiritual hunger with physical food and we live in a world in which many are deeply aware of this hunger but unable to satisfy it, does it not make sense for us to consistently speak about the reality of the Eucharist with this in mind? Of course, we must explain that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, but is it not also important for us to explain why the Eucharist is present under the species of bread and wine? In other words, not only does one receive Christ when one receives communion, but also food. Both of these realities present in the Eucharist require our attention and devotion.
We live in an era in which, even when they do not acknowledge God, people are keenly aware of the deep longing for meaning, purpose, and value that occupies every human heart and which does not seem to find satisfaction even in the noblest things of this world. It is our duty as Christians (much like St. Justin Martyr, Moses, Elisha, and Christ himself) to offer to the world the physical food that nourishes our spiritual hunger.
This is not merely a doctrine to be accepted, but a gift that is meant to sustain us. After all, Christ did not choose to make himself sacramentally present simply as an object to be adored, but as food that would satisfy the hunger of every human heart, “And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία.”
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