I shall be asking the First Communion children this Sunday why Jesus chose to be especially present to us in bread. After all, he could have told us that he would be specially present when we ate our favourite food – cake – chocolate etc! But instead, he chose dull ordinary bread – even duller, because it is unleavened bread with no yeast to puff it up and make it tastier.
I think we can see three answers in our readings this Sunday. The First Reading (Deut 8:2-16) reminds us that dull ordinary bread is the one thing that keeps you alive when everything else fails – as in the desert. Poor people today largely live on cheap bread, or its equivalent. So Jesus chooses, what we English speakers sometimes call “the staff of life”, precisely to remind us that he is God the life-giver, available to support us when all else fails. All of us face times when we will be in the desert, when our lives will feel empty, and everything will be a big struggle. Getting into the habit of receiving Communion regularly is a preparation for those moments of challenge when we will really need God to support us and take us through.
The Second Reading (1 Cor 10:16-17) reminds us that Jesus choose bread because it is something we can all share. Nowadays, we sometimes miss that point, as we are all too busy eating our own food, especially our own favourite food, and thus forget that food is something that we share together. Indeed, sharing food with our family and our friends and with those in need, is one of the great things about being alive. In our rich culture, we learn it now most often when we share cake, for example on our birthday, when we have the great joy of blowing out our candles and cutting the cake so that we can hand it out and share it with everyone who is celebrating with us.
That is surely what St Paul is getting at with his image of the loaf. “The fact that there is only one loaf means that though there are many of us, we form a single body because we all have a share in the one loaf.” It is always a bit sad when we hear people talk of making their Communion, as if it were something they did alone, as if it were something just for them. In fact, it is called Communion precisely because it is not only Communion with God but Communion with one another. We all need to remember that we come to Mass as much for each other as for ourselves. When we miss Mass we are letting down everyone else who is at Mass. They miss us, and if enough people decide to do something else, then the absence of all these people becomes something we can all feel.
The third reason why Jesus chooses to be especially present for us in bread is best explained by reminding ourselves that Holy Communion is sometimes called the Medicine of Immortality. This is a term we first hear used by St Ignatius of Antioch who was writing in the early 2nd Century. I am reminded daily of the significance of this concept, since I have to take various pills to stay alive and healthy – pills to keep my blood pressure down and my thyroid level up etc etc. Taking these pills is very boring, and remembering to take them especially when other more exciting things happen in my life, can be very difficult. Yet if I fail to take them, then I know that gradually my physical body will fail.
It is surely the same with Holy Communion. It is not always very exciting to be at Mass, especially when there is something more exciting to do. And when we miss Mass we do not notice that we are any the worse off – after all think of all the people in the world who seem to survive without ever receiving Communion? But nonetheless it is the medicine of immortality, and whether we notice it or not, in the long run, received regularly and prayerfully, it draws us closer and closer to God – it prepares us for immortal life when we will be one with God for ever.
Thus Jesus says in the Gospel today (John 6:51-58) “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.” Those who do not meet Jesus in this wonderful way are missing out on a great gift from God. The Church teaches that such people may get to God after death in ways we do not know, for our God is a God of love and mercy for all men and women. But it is sad that this one wonderful way towards God is not something they share in. We need to remember what a great gift Holy Communion is, and to treasure it.