When I go to the bookstore, I will sometimes stop at the cookbook section. I don’t much care for cookbooks without pictures. I have difficulty imagining what something is supposed to look like just by reading a recipe. That is why I need pictures. And every once in a while, a particular recipe will grab my attention (actually, it’s the picture of the recipe that grabs my attention), probably because I can imagine how wonderful it might taste, and even better still, because I feel inspired to attempt to cook it at home. The feeling usually lasts a few seconds. Something else is likely to grab my attention, like another picture of another recipe, or another cookbook sitting on the shelf. Luckily, I can still walk away without much regret. Pictures of food might make me hungry, but only momentarily. Actual food, on the other hand, almost always does every time.
Upon further reflection, I notice that I tend to like pictures of certain dishes more than others – seafood dishes, pasta dishes, creamy gravies, moist tender meats, vibrant colors, artistic composition. Maybe that just means I have a good eye for photography. But there are pictures of other foods that just don’t do anything for me – desserts, cakes, pies, even chocolate. I know. I’m a freak. Now, don’t get me wrong. I will not turn down a delicious dessert. The pictures, on the other hand, don’t have the same effect.
You can tell I like food. I’m sure you do, too. And I can assure you I will always bring a good appetite to the table. Back when I was growing up, every meal was often a feast, especially in a large family, that is, except when there’s liver on the table, or tripe, or chicken hearts, or anything with tentacles. But I know not everything I like to eat is probably good for me. And I could be eating healthier as well, and in smaller portions. I know I can afford to lose a few. (Don’t touch that.) But what makes this venture harder than most to accomplish is that it’s not like turning a switch on or off. If you can admit certain things are not good for you, like smoking, cursing, stealing, or gossiping, simply scaling it down can’t be the real solution. If it’s not good for you, the best solution is getting rid of it all together. Not so for eating and drinking. There’s junk food and sugary soft drinks which we should probably avoid, but we also need to eat healthier. Avoiding all food and drink is clearly not an option. So while we have been reading from the sixth chapter of the gospel of John these last few weeks, it might help us to reflect deeper on the food that sustains us, both food for the body and food for the soul.
In 2003, Richard Carmona, the Surgeon General of the United States, appeared at a hearing on Capitol Hill to address members of Congress about what he recognized as a national crisis – obesity in America. And early this summer, a couple of programs on radio and TV have brought the very same issue for us to consider once again. The issue needs our attention because it has dangerous and irreversible consequences that are very much preventable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a January 2012 report, more than one-third of the US population is obese. “Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.” In short, obesity in America is common, serious, and costly. So it appears what has tremendous power to nourish us, also has power to endanger us, even kill us, if we let it. Not all food and drink sustains life. Sometimes, it can also take life.
The prevalence of unhealthy food and drink in the American diet may not be the only cause of this health crisis, but it is a major factor that has to be addressed. We consume less and less of certain essential vitamins and minerals, while the size of our meal portions have continued to increase. As a population, we have slowed down a great deal. We are not as active as previous generations before us. And although there is greater opportunity, availability, and variety of healthy exercise and recreation, we do not always take advantage of these beneficial and life-saving measures. We often go for what is easy and convenient, rather than what might cause us to break a sweat.
Just as we cannot reasonably deprive our physical bodies of the food and drink that nourish us to live healthy and productive lives, so we should not deprive our souls of the food and drink that nourishes us unto the life of God. Just as there is such a thing as junk food for the body, so there is junk food for the spirit. I think I spoke about that a year or two ago. What we need to attend to instead are food and drink to sustain in us the life Jesus wishes to share with us.
He tells us, “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.” To partake of Jesus’ flesh and blood means to be so immersed in him that his life and ours become indistinguishable one from the other. The theme of the Eucharist is an easy conclusion for us, we who read a sacramental meaning into Jesus’ words. If we believe that the bread and wine we receive at mass is truly his flesh and blood, we need to attend to how we might remain in communion with him. We do not want to break communion deliberately, or we cut ourselves off from the life of God. And we can cut ourselves off from the life of God by deliberate choice or indifference and neglect. When we live our lives in direct opposition to the Gospel, when we refuse the nourishment of prayer and study, preferring instead the junk food of superstition and ignorance, when we fail to give our spirits necessary exercise which is the practice of virtue, and give in rather to laziness and complacency, we place our spiritual health in peril.
Jesus offers us his very flesh as food. But if our communion with him does not transform our thinking, our attitude, and our living, we could still be just partaking of bread, much as Israel ate the manna in the desert. They still died. The true bread from heaven promises to sustain and nourish the life of God within us. And that life of God was entrusted to us at baptism. Like the flame from the Easter candle, that life of God within us should be kept burning brightly. For some, that flame has gone dim. Like the white baptismal garment, that life of God within us must be kept unstained. For some, that garment is stained and tattered. And as we were anointed with the oil of gladness, that life of God within us gives us the wisdom, courage, and strength to face darkness, and selfishness, and sin without fear. And some of us are still fearful. But with willful choice, indifference or neglect, we can diminish or even starve that gift of God’s life entrusted to us. For that life of God to flourish within us, we cannot sit idly by.
“Do not continue in ignorance,” St. Paul instructs the Ephesians. “But try to understand what is the will of the Lord.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” God sets an abundant table before us. How is it we can still leave from this place hungry and starving?