At the time that I'm recording this video, the city of Chicago has been in shelter in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak for just under two months. Faced with a rapid change in my daily life and routine, my partner and I decided to deal with that as so many others have - by taking on a fairly ambitious baking project. We decided to try to make our own sourdough starter.
It failed. Spectacularly. Three different times.
As I watched our source of flour slowly begin to diminish knowing that it was a very hot commodity and hard to find, I finally decided to phone a friend and try to figure out exactly where we were going wrong. I was being peppered with questions like “was I measuring the sourdough starter’s temperature?”, “Was making sure to feed it at exactly the same time?”, “ Am I making sure to find an ideal place that was not too warm, but not too cold?”
I just started thinking - I was not aware that I was in an in-depth personal relationship with a baked good.
Bread of Life Sunday looks really different during a global pandemic that limits so many people's ability to receive Eucharist. For many of us Holy Week and Easter Sunday came and went without being able to take part in the core liturgical act - the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ. Without the Eucharist, how do we talk about what it means when Christ says, “I am the Bread of Life.”?
As I read the first reading today and heard that reminder and admonition that “man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” I tried to take some comfort in it. But I just kept thinking, it's just not the same. Then I remembered, at the end of the day, the Eucharist begins and ends in a relationship. That's where it all comes from and where it all returns to.
I think it might be helpful for us to really engage this week's Gospel reading if we have a sense of what's happening off-screen. Just before Jesus begins to explain to us what it means to be the living Bread of Life come down from heaven, at the beginning of this chapter he's actually just fed 5000 people. After this miracle, he heads off to pray and when he comes back the crowd meets him and specifically tries to ask him where he's been and what's going on. Christ fairly astutely wonders if they are there because they believe in him or because they want another meal. The group hedges their bets and says, “well you know Moses was able to produce bread in the desert, so maybe that's a sign that you can give us that will help us believe in you.” Christ responds saying I am the bread of life - I am what has come here to nourish you. It then goes into a very long conversation where the crowd continues to be confused and keeps asking for actual bread and Christ repeatedly says “I am the bread of life. I am the living bread.” It’s that admonition over and over again that it was a relationship with Christ that people needed to be fed by, that's at the root of the Eucharist. It’s a reminder of where the Eucharist comes from.
So it's with that reminder of essential relationality of the Eucharist that I've been trying to re-engage and remind myself. I'm thankful in these moments to have what Andrew Greeley would call the “Catholic imagination.” It's that sort of window that many of us tend to have where we can see God's movement and participation in all of life around us. God isn't this distant thing that we need to go out and find, but rather, God is invested and incarnated in the midst of our own lives, inviting us continually to feel God's presence and to feel God's love. It's in these sacramental moments, these moments that point back to the ways that we experience grace through the sacrament, that I find myself being fed and being reminded of what the reality of the Eucharist looks like for me.
I'm sure you can think of some of these moments as well. Maybe it was the first date or meeting that you had with a special person in your life across a cup of coffee or a glass of wine where you just found yourself grateful to be in their presence. Maybe it's during meals at family dinners of being seen and loved. They are a subtle echo of the reality of the sacrament - Eucharist reminding us again to be in relationship. It's Christ over and over again reminding us “I am the living bread.”
But it goes beyond just remembering. Relationships are about more than just what we receive. I think the words from the first letters the Corinthians is a great reminder that the Eucharist isn't a spectator sport. We participate in the body of Christ when we break the bread. We participate in the blood of Christ when we drink from the cup. Living into a Eucharistic reality means participating in it. It means saying yes to that relationship again and again and again. It means trying to model the Eucharistic relationship that God offers us to everyone around us - the folks that we love, the folks that we are troubled by, the folks that we know, and the folks that we don't.
The Eucharistic calls us to be in relationship is a challenge over and over again for us as believers and perhaps more importantly to us as a Church. At this time when we find ourselves so distant on this Bread of Life Sunday, how do we think about what it means to participate? To love those who seem unlovable. To go beyond the boundaries of our own understanding of who fits and who doesn't.
I want to leave you with one final story. Years ago I spent Easter Sunday in Kingston, Jamaica at a place where children who had essentially been abandoned to die in a dump were able to live out their lives with dignity. In the middle of the mass, a developmentally disabled child who had been making noises throughout the majority of the mass stood up at the very moment of epiclesis. As the priest raised the host above his head, the child stood up pointed and shouted “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Then he pointed to himself and said, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” And finally he pointed at the entire crowd and said, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” In that moment I knew that I had been fed far more than I could have ever imagined. So friends, as Christ reminds us that he's the living bread come down from heaven, how can we participate in that reality here and now?
Susan Haarman is the associate director at Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Experiential Learning, facilitating faculty development and the service-learning program. She has degrees from Marquette University, Loyola University of Chicago, the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, and previously served as the faith and justice campus minister, also at Loyola University Chicago. In addition to having a Masters in Divinity, she also holds a Masters in Community Counseling, a certificate in directing the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, and is currently in a doctoral program. Her research focuses on the intersection between social justice education, civic identity, and imagination. She is also an improviser and storyteller in Chicago.
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