Food and I, we get along. That’s just in case you didn’t know. And in return a good variety of foods enjoy my company. But not all of them; and they know who they are. I am confident you all enjoy food as well. But for a truly enjoyable experience, there are certain things that I would consider essential. These elements can be as varied as we are one from another, but there are probably a few things we would consider universal.
First, dessert—generally anything sweet, crumbly, crunchy, it doesn’t really matter, or anything chocolate, and just enough to top off the whole dining experience. The entrée—delicious tender meat that you won’t mind having seconds of—whether poultry, pork, beef, or fish—yes to them all, but on separate occasions. “Au jus” or gravy, of course. A side of pasta al dente, or mashed potatoes, or rice—just keep in mind it’s not the main event. Then fresh baked bread in abundance to sop up the gravy. And okay, fresh steamed vegetables, also not the main event. Good wine, or cider in my case. Just the right amount of spices, not overpowering. A picture-perfect presentation —and if you do take a picture, no need to share it with the whole world. And yes, I’ll stop doing it too. Great table service. Reasonable prices. No time constraints. Pleasant dinner companions. Engaging conversation. No whining. No juvenile or trashy talk. No TV. No cell phones. No threats of doing the dishes. A relaxing ambience. Subdued background music. Well-behaved dinner patrons all around. A lovely face across the table, preferably the same table. Comfortable footwear. Deodorant that doesn’t quit. No bugs, a slight breeze, low humidity. The opportunity to do it all again soon.
We all have some idea what it would take for the dining experience to be truly enjoyable. So how often do you get an experience like that? I can’t say I have too often since I don’t cook a lot of the things I enjoy. But what I do cook, I thoroughly enjoy. I don’t have anyone to impress, so I don’t often worry about presentation. Since I eat alone typically, there’s not any conversation to be had. And when I’m in a hurry, dinner is not a leisurely affair. I won’t likely put out the good napkins or candles or soothing background music. But I’m at the dining table, not in front of the TV. I might have dessert in front of the TV, if I have dessert at all. But not chocolate. Chocolate doesn’t last long in the house. And every once in a while, I will eat out with friends just so I don’t forget my manners in civilized society.
We gather today in this place to share a meal, but not just an ordinary meal, a sacred meal with profound meaning and significance. Not all meals can be described the same way. Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, is meaningful. But since it happens each year, perhaps not always significant. But the meal where you propose to your fiancé, or announce to your family you’re pregnant, or you’re moving to Zimbabwe, or getting your belly-button pierced, that could be fairly significant, not for the meal itself, but for something else altogether. Our meal is profoundly meaningful and significant, for much of the same reasons as the ideal meal experience we looked at earlier, as well as other reasons that transcend any meal we have ever experienced.
Most of us are not here at this meal for the first time. We know why we come, and why we return. We come for extraordinary food, the Word and the Bread that gives eternal life. But are we truly partaking of this life-giving Word and Bread, or are we going home hungry? This extraordinary food is meant to nourish our spirits. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul urges us to live “no longer as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” He urges us to be aware of who we are and why we believe, “that we should put away the old self of our former way of life … and be renewed in the spirit of our minds.” I know that some among us are prevented from approaching the table for different reasons. But God desires to satisfy our hunger, and obstacles can be overcome.
In a survey conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate 10 year ago on what US Catholics believe and how they practice their faith, 57% said they believe that Jesus is really present in the Bread and Wine in the Eucharist, while 43% said they are only symbols of Jesus. Did we perhaps emphasize so much more the community aspect of mass in recent years that we neglected to teach about the mystery of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist? It is unfortunate that we have to choose between one and the other instead of teaching both truths with equal conviction. And we cannot teach our children what we ourselves do not believe. So if we lack understanding, it is our responsibility to ask and find answers.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus tells us today. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” For many years devout and sincere Catholics have come to mass seeking food only for their bodies, while they go hungry spiritually. When they come to church, they only come for bread from the table. They obsess about what communion bread should look like, or smell like, or feel like. It bothers them when the Eucharist does not come in little round pieces of bleached wheat wafers. They get upset that people receive communion in their hands, or that ministers who are not priests distribute the Eucharist. It upsets them when they cannot have silence after communion because the singing doesn’t stop. They approach the table with such heartfelt devotion and solemnity, but are not as concerned to share God’s peace and compassion with other people in their lives outside the church’s walls. Their experience of the Eucharist is focused on the external ritual. They are still spiritually hungry after mass each week.
We need to examine what we profess before we approach the table. If we do not believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist we receive, how do we partake of a meal that proclaims that truth? If we are unwilling to forgive, and seek forgiveness for our sins; or if we live in such blatant contradiction to who Jesus is, and what the gospel teaches, how do we share a meal that proclaims Jesus is our top priority? Should not our sharing in the Eucharist proclaim a vital connection between what we believe and how we live? How can we claim union of mind and heart with God if we disregard what Jesus teaches, or that the choices we make contradict his values? Do we come to the Eucharist only for bread for our bodies? Are we like the ungrateful people God called from slavery into freedom who complained, “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine.” Would that we had mass like we did years ago, when we didn’t need to understand what we were saying, when God was always mysterious and distant, when all that mattered was external. But you had to open our hearts and minds so we have to think for ourselves, and have no one but ourselves to blame for our hardness of heart!
Jesus offers us bread from heaven, his very own life, that God’s Spirit might give life to our spirits. If you happen to hear his voice, if you happen to approach the table, ask for living bread and don’t be content to go home hungry ever again.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Ephesians 4: 22-23
Exodus 16: 3