A few weeks ago, I traveled to China for the first time, to meet the extended family of my boyfriend, Gary. Less than 24 hours after we landed, I found myself at a large dinner table with ten of Gary’s relatives, surrounded by a chorus of unfamiliar sounds, sights, and smells.
In the center of the table, a spinning platform displayed dozens of dishes for us all to share. The food was complex and delicious and surprising. There were so many new vegetables and flavors and no part of an animal or vegetable was overlooked or wasted. Every dish was a creative masterpiece.
About halfway through the meal, a plate with speckled, deep-red cubes made their way around the table. I looked to Gary to explain the dish, as he had been doing all night. With a twinkle in his eye he asked, “You don’t recognize that?” I looked back at him, blankly. “Liver? Spleen?” He shook his head. “You have it every week.” I was still confused. “It’s blood,” he said, with a wink. I was taken aback, but I picked up my chopsticks.
Years ago, I taught an introductory theology course at a Jesuit university. Several of the students who ended up in my classroom were totally new to Christianity. Surrounded by a student body that moved in droves to Mass each Sunday night, they had a lot of questions, especially those who had accepted invitations to join their new friends at Mass. Their earnest desire to understandwas a great gift to me.
As much as I believe, as much as I experience profound grace during Mass, when I take a step back and consider what we are doing from an outsider’s perspective, it all sounds pretty crazy. We remember words from hundreds of years ago and proceed up the aisle to consume God’s own flesh and blood from communalvessels.
Participating in Mass and receiving the Eucharist is an act of faith, an affirmation of the mystery that God, through Christ, understands each of our deepest hungers and wants to feed us. And then wants us to go forth and feed others. But getting to the table, summoning the humility and courage to receive the nourishment that’s been set before us isn’t always simple. And sometimes, the food is hard to recognize.
In today’s first reading from the first book of Kings, we encounter the fiery prophet Elijah out in the wilderness, utterly alone, and unsure of his next move. In stark contrast to his confident righteousness in the previous chapter, he admits defeat. “Enough,” he says and proceeds to pray for his own death until he passes out under a tree.
He awakes to a tap on his shoulder and someone offering him a simple meal. He dutifully eats, then closes his eyes again. He’s beat.
But the angel doesn’t leave him alone and wakes him up to eat again because God’s got plans for him. He needs to keep walking, even though he’s exhausted. God entrusted Elijah to feed people, to be the one to offer the sustenance and inspiration to a community hungry for the word of God. But first, God knew that he needed to be nourished and strengthened himself.
I spend a lot of time thinking about feeding people. I work at an organization called Haley House, and our motto is “food with purpose.” When we open the doors to the soup kitchen each morning at 5:30, some people are smiling and grateful for a place to be and a meal to eat. Others are already (or still) intoxicated, carrying burdens of hurt from days, weeks, years and lifetimes prior. We serve a lot of meals, but that’s only part of our mission.
Most of those who come to our doors, guests, volunteers and staff alike, are experiencing an emotional hunger just as real and urgent as their physical hunger. Just as importantly, each of us has something to offer, guest, volunteer, and staff alike. We all need to be fed, and we all have food that we’re meant to be sharing with others.
At the start of the gospel reading, the local religious authorities, folks who grew up with Jesus or at least know his origin, are skeptical of his promises. They’re having a hard of time getting past who they thinkhe is to be able hear whatit is he is offering to them. If only they could get past those old prejudices and barriers they’ve constructed that keep them from recognizing God right in front of them. If only we could get past those things… if only I could get past those things.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
Jesus is offering himself: his presence, his strength, his peace. And then, he asks us to share all of these things with others.
The psalm for this week has offered me so much solace over the years.
Taste and See the goodness of the Lord.
It’s not been easy for me to pray this psalm lately. My dad has been in a hospital for almost exactly a year, experiencing more ups and downs and twists and turns than any of us can count. Several months ago, we had one of many “family meetings” with ICU physicians to let us know about the gravity of my dad’s sickness and the low odds of his recovery. That particular day, my spirit crumbled.
Without realizing it, I stumbled up to the adoration chapel in the hospital and unconsciously began moving my lips to prayers I know in my deepest heart. It was all I could manage to do. And then I wept.
After a while, my tears slowed, and I felt something resembling calm. Not any less scared or sad, but strengthened, somehow, enough to return to my family. We held hands with each other, and we sat with my dad, a man of extraordinary strength and courage and kindness. A man, above all else, of gratitude and great faith.
Eventually, someone brought us some food. And we ate.
And we laughed together.
My 3 and 5 year-old nieces practiced dance routines in my dad’s room, using gloves and masks as props.
My amazing mother somehow prepared an unbelievable Christmas, then Easter for us all.
We celebrated Chinese New Year with my boyfriend’s family and described the dumplings in meticulous detail to my delighted dad, who hasn’t been able to eat in a year.
We had more family meetings.
We listened to podcasts. We talked about planting vegetables.
Family and friends came to be with us and my dad.
And we kept walking through the wilderness. Tired, but grateful for each day we’re given together.
Taste and See the goodness of the Lord.
When the afflicted one cried out, the Lord heard.
And from all her distress, God saved her.
From her distress. Not from her suffering, not from her pain, not from sadness.
The manna, the bread we are offered may not always taste like we expect it to taste. But it isput in front of us every day, to feed us, and then to be shared with others. Some days we can’t recognize it right away and we need someone else to help us identify new vegetables or show us how to use chopsticks properly. Other days, the food is simple, but exactly what we need.
For each of us, our time here on earth is short and unpredictable and precious. And the journey feels so long sometimes.
But we are not ever alone, and when God offers us nourishment, which is Christ’s promise to us in the gospel today, it is so much richer when we share it with others. Ultimately, we await an eternal, magnificent feast beyond time and space, prepared for us by a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagination. God’s vision for the world is galaxies wider than ours, and I take great comfort in that.
May our hearts and eyes remain open to the daily bread set before us,
and may we be brave enough to keep walking,
and keep sharing our bread with others along the way.
Mary Lou Bozza
Mary Lou Bozza is the eldest of her generation in a welcoming, food-loving Irish-Italian family from Connecticut. After beginning Boston College as a chemistry major, she graduated with a degree in Theology and Hispanic Studies. Her senior thesis about Dorothy Day is part of the Dorothy Day archives at Marquette University.
Following graduation, she taught high school theology and urban studies as a Jesuit Alumni Volunteer in Chicago before pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Yale Divinity School. While at YDS, Mary Lou led the Catholic student group, served as a chapel minister for the daily ecumenical chapel, and was a research assistant for Margaret Farley, RSM.
She later served as a Campus Minister and Theology instructor at St. Louis University, International Relations and Delegations Coordinator at FUNDAHMER in El Salvador, and Director of Confirmation and Youth Ministry at Good Shepherd Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts.
Mary Lou is currently the Director of Development at Haley House, a feisty Boston non-profit founded in the Catholic Worker Tradition which includes a soup kitchen, affordable housing, an urban farm, and a social enterprise cafe employing people returning from incarceration. She is also a founding member of FACES (Faith in Action with El Salvador), a U.S. non-profit established to support community organizations in El Salvador. Mary Lou's writing has been published by Liguori Press, various Catholic newspapers, and in a collection of essays about feminism and faith.