Bread that is Enough

eucharist1In reflecting on the journey through the desert, Moses in Deuteronomy says that God humbled the people to teach them—and us—that we do not live by bread alone. (Deut. 8:3) So often we think that our needs are biological and if we can fill them we’ll be just fine. But somehow the daily bread we pray for every day is not quite enough. Actually, the Greek word epiousion usually translated as “daily” means something quite different. Literally it means super-substantial which is a philosophical mouthful. To add to the puzzle, no other use of the word has been found, not even among Greek philosophers. It has been interpreted as referring to the Eucharist which is both bread and more than bread, but it seems anachronistic to suggest that Jesus was sneaking some medieval scholastic theology into the prayer he was teaching his disciples. On the other hand, it is understandable that medieval scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas would understand the word eucharistically. Obscure as the Greek word’s meaning is, the one thing that is moderately clear is that it suggests that physical daily bread that is enough to live on biologically is not enough and we need more. In this respect it could be a brief commentary on the just-quoted verse from Deuteronomy.

There are many ways we speak of needing more than bread, most often by noting our need for a meaningful life. After all, eating and sleeping doesn’t add up to very much no matter how good the food is. Given that, it is instructive that in the desert journey and in the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding the multitude in the wilderness, the people seem to be interested in more food  than in a sense of meaning to life. In John, in spite of the abundance of the feeding in the wilderness, the crowd demands to have this bread always. If we remain stuck at this level, various distortions follow.

The complaints that Moses should have left the people in the “fleshpots” of Egypt is an egregious example of this sort of distortion. Maybe the fare in the desert isn’t luxurious but the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and slave owners have never, in all of world history, gained any kind of reputation as servers of opulent meals to their slaves for all the work slaves might do in serving such meals to others. Further on, the manna appears as if from heaven and the Israelites gather it. Those who gathered more and those who gathered less all had “enough.” They were warned not to try to gather more than enough but many tried it anyway and the manna became foul and full of worms. Quite an apt image for what we get when we try to get too much. Our tendency to try to gather more of anything than we need is an indication that we need more than bread but we are trying to meet that need by gathering more bread. Usually what gathering “more” means is gathering more than other people for the sake of having more than other people. Once we want more than others, it is still never possible under any circumstances to have enough because if we already have more than others, we’ll still want more to make sure they don’t catch up.

In John, when Jesus says that he himself is the bread, he is clearly taking them to a meaning that would bring home the truth that humanity does not live by bread alone. If they really come to him, they will have enough: they will never hunger again. Or will they? Jesus says that they have to believe in him. Raymund Brown says that faith means giving their lives over to the way of Jesus. Will we do that? What is the life Jesus gives us like?

In Ephesians, Paul says that the life Jesus gives us consists of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with each other in love. We are to be one Body in Christ, the same body that we consume in the Eucharist. Being twisted to and fro and being blown about by every wind of doctrine is a powerful way of illustrating what it is like to be caught in the insatiable desire to have what everybody else wants and to have more of it. In contrast, the Body of Christ is solid, anchored. Where the winds of doctrine leave us famished no matter how much bread we have, in Christ’s Body we are gifted with being prophets, apostles, pastors, and teachers all being built together in Christ’s Body. That is, in Christ’s Body we all have enough because we are always feeding one another at all levels of our being as we build each other up in love. Sounds like life to me. Let’s try it.

Advertisements

Early Rejections of Sacrifice

Antigone_5369-MichelidesOne of the chief tenets of René Girard’s theory about sacred violence is that humanity was not capable of seeing the truth about what it was doing until Jesus revealed the truth in his passion and resurrection. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God) This is quite a sweeping judgment but outside of the Hebrew Bible there is close to nothing that comes to mind to refute this generalization. Girard’s theory would predict this to be the case and Paul’s assertions that humanity is enslaved by sin too deeply to escape it without the help of Divine grace would also corroborate this position. One would have to have read everything written or recorded from history up to the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection to have a basis for presenting an airtight case.  However, considering that we are all created by God with mimetic desire with its potential for good, one might think that some people may have caught at least to some extent.

An interesting phenomenon that occurred between the eighth and third centuries BC that is customarily called the Axial Age points to a collective awakening in humanity. In several cultures, there was a questioning of and withdrawal from sacrifice. It was the Hebrew prophets who were by far the most articulate on the subject and coupled their concerns with the revealing collective violence behind it. In India, the Brhamanas edged away from sacrifice as Girard pointed out and Brian Collins collaborated at greater length in The Head beneath the Altar. The Upanishadic tradition turned to intense inward meditation as did Jainism and Buddhism.  They all seem to have seen a smoking gun in sacrificial rituals. It is instructive that these new movements in India rejected the Vedic caste system although Jainism created a caste system of its own which was less hierarchal, at least relatively speaking.  In China, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu preached withdrawal from conflictive societies to seek union with the Tao. Confucius remained involved with society but developed an ethic seeking to limit mimetic rivalry. It occurs to me that the ancestral rites in honor of ancestors were an extension of filial respect in this life that could limit conflict between generations. Many examples of insights into the problem of mimetic violence could be noted. I will confine myself to two powerful examples.

One of the most memorable teachings attributed to the Buddha is the Parable of the Burning House in the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. A dilapidated house catches fire while the children are playing inside. They are so absorbed in their games that they do not want to come out of the burning house, no matter how urgently their father calls them. In the end, he has to make extravagant promises of the rarest and greatest of toy chariots and oxen to entice them to come out. Once the children are outside the house and are safe, they wonder where the toys are. Their father, being very rich, gives them carriages of great size and beauty, way beyond their wildest, childish dreams. For one steeped in mimetic realism, it is not difficult to see the burning of a dilapidated house as an image of a society engulfed in mimetic violence that threatens  to destroy the society, much as the Flood in Noah’s time threatens to destroy humanity. Once taken outside the house, something done through deep meditation in Buddha’s teaching, all is calm. Given the phenomenon of scarcity caused by mimetic rivalry, it is instructive that once the children are outside the burning house, there is mind-boggling abundance such as the abundance Jesus created in the wilderness for the four and five thousand people. (See Mimetic Scarcity)

The other example is the Theban plays of Sophocles. Oedipus the King has been studied at length by Girard and Sandor Goodhart for the mimetic tensions and the scapegoating of Oedipus who is blamed for the plague, another image of a society in mimetic crisis. Goodhart argues in Sacrificing Commentary that Sophocles seems to believe that Oedipus is innocent and covertly gives clues for the reader or watcher of a performance to see this, but he is carefully subtle about it. After all, plays in Athens were performed at the Festival of Dionysius, a highly sacrificial god who was torn into pieces and whose devotees tore people into pieces during their frenzies. In Intimate Domain, Martha Reineke demonstrates that in Antigone, Sophocles takes his insights much deeper. Antigone shows a deep self-sacrificing love by burying her brother’s body against orders from Creon to desist. Since Antigone cannot actually dig a grave, she buries her brother by scattering ashes over his body, an image revealing the truth about death. She dies a sacrificial death for her defiance, but she dies not as a sacrificial victim but on her own terms, as Jesus died on his own terms and not those of Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas. Since Antigone dies outside of the city, she has died outside of the system of the persecutory polis. In this way, Reinecke suggests that she has become a figure of Christ.

Foreigners and Strangers

statueoflibertyI’m not going to brag about how great a country the United States of America is, but I’m not going to condemn it either. The lections assigned for this celebration tell us how to celebrate this day and that is how I’m going to do it.

In Deuteronomy (10:17-21), Yahweh claims to be the God of Gods. That is God is God of all nations, not just Israel and certainly not just of the United States. Yahweh goes on to remind the Israelites of their humble origins as escaped slaves and commands them to lend the same compassion to other foreigners. It is easy for us to forget that all of us here are descended from foreigners, even the Native Americans, although they go way back. Yahweh, who defends the poor and the fatherless, embraces the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free. As descendants of tired and poor teeming masses yearning to breathe free, we should open this country to those whom Yahweh loves and not just to the energetic, rich people who breathe easily. In order for a country to practice such radical hospitality, it is necessary to practice the same hospitality to all who already live here so that others may wish to come.

When we gather in any way, whether as a family, a community, or a nation, we need to be sure that our bonding is not at the expense of others. That is, we should not need enemies to know who we are or who we think we are. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, which amounts to not considering anyone our enemies, even if they think that of us. Jesus says that pagans greet those who are of “their sort.” Jesus asks much more of us than that. If God gives rain to all, then we should give peace to all. That is, we should treat those of other countries the way we treat our own, provided we treat our own as the passage from Deuteronomy teaches us.

The author of Hebrews (11:816) reminds us that our country, any country, is not ultimate, is not our final dwelling place. Even the most supposedly settled of us were nomads once and fundamentally we still are. We all should be looking for a “better country—a heavenly one” while we live as foreigners and strangers here. If we all live as foreigners, we will not be strangers to each other and we will be surprised at how pleasant our stopping place is on the Way to the better Home.