Comfort food is edible nourishment that appeals to, creates, or promotes a deep sense of belonging and security, even nostalgia – my definition. It would be different things to different people. But the food service industry will know best the popular choices: pot roast, meatloaf, a grilled steak, cheese pizza, chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac & cheese, pancakes with maple syrup, bacon and eggs, apple pie, peach cobbler … with a scoop of vanilla. That would all be typical standard American fare. But every ethnic culture has its own standard menu; every family its favorite delicacies; every individual his or her own guilty pleasures. Among their common characteristics is a high calorie count, with added fat, starch, salt, and sugar, which might contribute flavor, but not much else. It’s not that comfort food is necessarily bad for you. But overdoing it isn’t necessarily good either. But who cares? When you’re in a funky mood, when you’re in need of a quick pick-me-up, what do you ingest? A cookie? Chocolate? Mixed drink? Something deep fried? Whatever you choose, it will appeal to, create, or promote a deep sense of belonging or security, even nostalgia. It is very much about the feeling of home.
As Catholics, we are very familiar with something like comfort food. From an early age, we come to love and treasure the experience of Holy Communion. We love the feeling of walking up to the altar for a little wafer of unleavened bread, and a little sip of red wine. We might remember our first time, most of us in the 2nd grade, innocent and shy behind that silly grin, professionally sanitized and immaculately decked in a nice little outfit for the occasion, under the proud and loving gaze of mom and dad and the rest of the family, while our teachers, our catechists, or the sisters who valiantly nurtured in us the love of God and the dread of sin gave us some final instructions. Soon we walked up the main aisle to Father or some other Minister of the Eucharist. Hearts pounding, we reverently held our hands out or opened our mouths to receive Our Lord himself into our hearts. And each time we returned to Sunday mass after that day, which we did quite eagerly, we got to receive communion again. After many years the lofty sentiments may have faded some. The act of receiving communion appeals to, creates, and promotes a deep sense of belonging and security for us, even nostalgia. It has little nutritional value, but we believe it has immense spiritual value. Still we can’t remember the last time we seriously stopped to think about what it means.
We cannot imagine coming to mass without receiving Communion. Otherwise, why even come at all? Arriving late or leaving early is less a concern; walking around during the readings or the consecration; going to the bathroom … not a problem, just as long as we get to receive communion. If we become aware of sin in our hearts or anything that would hinder our receiving communion, we eventually find a way to fix the situation; unless of course, we have gotten used to not receiving communion for some time now. It’s not as painful as it once was. And it’s not enough reason to stop coming, not yet anyway. It’s complicated, we tell ourselves; no one will understand. Or we would rather ignore the elephant in the room, convincing ourselves nothing needs fixing. Really.
But we cannot reduce our participation in so sublime a mystery as the Holy Eucharist to a warm fuzzy feeling, not simply to a sense of belonging and security (no matter how comforting), not to some hollow sentiment that carries no meaning beyond these walls. The mystery of the Holy Eucharist is about the Son of the Most High God Jesus Christ giving his own flesh and blood as food to sustain the life of grace within us. It is food that challenges us to become more like God’s Son himself, so that we might in turn willingly give our own lives as food for our sisters and brothers in the world who are not even aware of the hunger of their own spirits! But it is always so much easier to just hold out our hands or open our mouths for comfort food. We get to soak in that warm fuzzy feeling of closeness to God, no strings attached, no unrealistic expectations – just like a couple of slices of pot roast, some mashed potatoes and gravy, and a slice of pie to top it off. Then after, we can go about our day; or we can go home and take a nap.
Holy Communion is more than the ritual action of receiving communion, more than taking holy food and drink into our bodies, more than the satisfaction of believing all is right in the universe because I fulfilled the third commandment. Maybe in the 2nd grade, but not anymore! It is very much like how in life we soon learn that marriage is more than saying “I do” on your wedding day, more than getting all dolled up for the love of your life on that one day of all days, more than spending a small fortune to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind it is THE event of the century.
Receiving Holy Communion is about being nourished with the life of God so that we can live our lives proclaiming confidently and joyfully there is so much more to life than the rat race, or collecting the best and most expensive toys, or sticking it to those who thought you’d never amount to anything. We are nourished with the life of God so we can live our lives free of all the concerns people have who have nothing more to hope for than this present existence. We live our lives with the sincere conviction that our God is a loving, compassionate, and just God, who desires our greatest good, who is not vindictive or petty, who is above our squabbles, our prejudices, our politics. And when we are deeply nourished with the life of God, we can bring some much needed hope and meaning to the lives of others around us, so that they too would be more concerned about the values and truths that endure.
“Give them some food yourselves,” Jesus told his disciples. He believed his disciples had nourishing food to share with the crowd. I’m sure he didn’t mean food for the body, but rather food for the spirit. Through his very own person his disciples had complete access to the very life of God, he who was the eternal Word present from the beginning, he who would reconcile sinful humanity to God by his death and resurrection, he who would give his own flesh and blood for the life of the world. Yet his disciples didn’t catch on. It seemed they were barely aware of what he was getting at. But 20 centuries later we can see how the whole event foreshadowed the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Why do we still not get what he was trying to tell us?
“Give them some food yourselves,” he tells us. How do we feed the hungry if we ourselves are starving, if we fail to nourish God’s life within us, if all we seek is food to make us feel good? “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” We proclaim the death of the Lord each and every time we receive Holy Communion. Feeling good isn’t even mentioned once.
Rolo B. Castillo © 2013