“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told a crowd of hungry people. Jesus used symbols from the physical, tangible world to help us understand who he is. But no matter how hard he tried to explain himself, his listeners, even today, often don’t grasp what he was saying.
“Food,” Jesus said, in effect, “is a metaphor for me, the incarnation of God. If you think about what food does physically, you’ll see what I am doing spiritually. I’m nourishing you. I’m helping you grow.” However, physical hunger distracted the people listening to Jesus. Today, in the modern United States, our issues with food may be different, but we still miss the connections between the food we eat and spiritual nourishment.
Many of us, myself included, get food’s physical and spiritual aspects confused. We do not always eat to give our bodies what they need. Sometimes we eat to feed our hearts, the starved, needy core of our beings. We soothe our emotional and spiritual pain with starchy “comfort foods,” as though they could offer us as much hope and meaning as any miraculous bread from heaven. No matter how much we eat, the emptiness remains.
“Why do you waste so much energy pursuing something that will one day spoil and leave you empty?” Jesus asked. Our need to eat is a fact of life, and food is one of our surest pleasures. However, no food, no matter how satisfying, can fully nourish our inner being. When we seek the symbol itself instead of the divine reality it points to, the symbol becomes a lifeless idol.
Our culture is obsessed not only with eating but also with not eating. Fad diets are a $72 million industry, and dieting has become a spectator sport, drawing millions of viewers to reality shows that focus on spectacular feats of weight loss. Even as we’re bombarded with ads for mouthwatering foods, we also receive constant and confusing messages: Don’t eat fat. Don’t eat carbohydrates. Don’t eat meat. Don’t eat dairy. Don’t eat sugar. Whether we are driven by health concerns or the desire for a particular kind of beauty, few of us are truly immune to this constant onslaught on our diets.
Other aspects of our society further complicate our relationship with food. Our lives are so busy that processed and fast foods have become attractive options. We don’t often have time to linger around a table with family and friends, so we eat on the run. Twenty percent of all American meals are eaten in the car. At least 25 percent of Americans eat fast food every day. We don’t have time for the slow, intentional love of a home-cooked meal.
To make things worse, fresh foods simply aren’t available to all. More than 6 percent of our nation’s population—some 19 million people—lives in food deserts, geographic areas that lack access to fresh food. People living in these areas buy much of their food at dollar and convenience stores. And when they do get to a grocery store, they tend to stock up on packaged and canned goods rather than pricey fresh foods.
In the midst of this snarl of societal factors, how can we find the face of Jesus in our “daily bread”?
When I look back into my childhood memories, I rediscover the metaphor that gives me a true picture of the divine. I grew up in a Black Haitian family where everything that mattered was celebrated at the table. Whether it was a death or a birth, a good grade at school or a new job, a birthday or the arrival of a guest, the table was where we gathered. My family’s meals were holistic experiences: not only sacred ceremonies but also beautiful to behold, nourishing to consume, and therapeutic to smell.
“Sharing food is what pulls our family together,” my dad used to say. “It’s what solidifies us as a Black family.” At the table we told stories, found ways to process both good news and bad, discussed politics, studied the Bible, and prayed. Mealtime was a spiritual encounter, a sacramental experience. Each bite I took spoke of pleasure and love, of variety and flavor, of family and home. My family’s food was more than a biological necessity. Mealtimes were slow, sweet moments of togetherness and grace. Our meals were sacraments, symbols of love spaced throughout each day. Eating truly gave us life.
Jesus used many metaphors to help us understand who he is, but food is the only metaphor that became a formal sacrament. During the Eucharist, we eat real food. Those pale, thin wafers of wheat are broken down into simple sugars by the saliva in our mouths and pass into our stomachs and intestines, where they are digested. Yet these bites of physical food are Jesus.
How can we truly understand the meaning of the sacrament when our perception of physical nourishment has become so twisted and obscured? Food ties us to the Earth; everything we eat is given to us by the natural world around us. We act as though human beings are a separate, isolated life-form, but in reality each act of eating weaves our lives into nature’s web of prey and predator, a living network where every organism has a part to play. I live because of a million blades of wheat, thousands of cows, tens of thousands of chickens, and countless rows of green growing plants. The cells of all these lives become a part of mine.
When Jesus claimed his flesh was food, he forever knotted the spiritual world with the physical world. God is not “out there” somewhere, floating like an ethereal dream. Instead, God is flesh and blood. God is the bread we eat and the wine we drink. God nourishes us and becomes a part of our very cells.
The Eucharist is also called communion. This small meal is not meant to be taken alone, as a moment of private spirituality. It is the symbol of our unity, our dependence on one another, just as my childhood meals were. During the Eucharist, we eat the bread of life together, and we who are the body of Christ are both nourished and knitted together. The divine comes to us as shared food.
God is flesh and blood. God is the bread we eat and the wine we drink. God nourishes us and becomes a part of our very cells.
In Nourishing Wisdom: A Mind-Body Approach to Nutrition and Well-Being (Harmony), Marc David, a nutritional psychologist, describes what he calls “ordered eating.” This approach to eating, he writes, is “intentional, conscious, reflective, transformational, nourishing, strategic, communal, intimate, connected, and mindful.”
What David describes is consistent with Ignatian spirituality, where the goal is always to find God in all things. If you and I can consciously bring eating into our relationship with God, we will encounter the divine in a profound way, opening ourselves to new perspectives on food.
Sadly, I must confess, along with St. Paul, “Not that I have already obtained this . . . but I press on to make it my own” (Phil. 3:12, NRSVCE). Those of us who have complicated relationships with food may find that healing takes time. As followers of Christ, we are each on a spiritual journey—and on that journey, even our failures and struggles can be conduits for grace. When we surrender to God our feelings and beliefs about food, we create openings where the Spirit can heal us at many levels of our being, and we gain greater insight into our woundedness in relation to food. At the same time, we may come to understand more deeply the ways in which solidarity with the poor, care for the environment, and respect for those who provide our food can shape our eating choices.
“The table is a place for us to be truly ourselves,” my grandmother used to say. “It is a place where we can simply be.” You and I may not yet have arrived at that place of simplicity (though I hope you have)—but let us “press on” with faith, patience, and intentionality. The Spirit of Truth has the power to heal our wounded hearts and restore order to our eating.
“Each time you eat,” David writes, “know that you are feeding more than just a body. You are feeding the soul’s longing for life. . . . Ultimately, the most important aspect of nutrition is not what to eat but how our relationship to food can teach us who we are and how we can sustain ourselves at the deepest level of being.”
“Take, eat,” Jesus said to us. “For this is my body, the bread of life.”
This article also appears in the July 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 7, pages 21-22). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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