Food for the Journey
by Fr. Jack McArdle
Some years ago, I travelled to Larne, in the north of Ireland, to say Mass for a Prayer Group. It was a dirty winter night, and, as soon as the Mass was over, I was anxious to get on the road. While the group was singing the second verse of the closing hymn, I had removed the vestments, and was out the sacristy door. My car was parked near the entrance, facing Dublin! As I walked towards it, I heard somebody call out to me. I confess to my self-concern, and I refused to react, or to look back.
As I got into the car, I looked in the rear-view mirror, and saw an elderly lady struggling to catch up with me. She had a walking stick, which she had put under her arm, presuming she could move faster without it. With a groan of self-pity, I resigned myself to the inevitable, as I lowered the window. I was prepared to hear her life-story, and all the people in her life who were in need of prayer. When she caught up with me, she was out-of-breath with the effort. "Father, I made these for you to be eating on your journey home". As she said this, she produced a little boat-shaped wicker-basket, covered in cling-film. The basket contained the tastiest little triangular egg and onion sandwiches I have ever eaten! I was humbled and moved, as I pulled away.
Many years later, that little basket is still here on my desk as I write, and, when I become aware of it, I think of it as food for the journey. On many occasions, I have made a connection between the significance of those sandwiches, and what has just happened when I come out of a church after Mass. Yes, indeed, Jesus provides us with food for the journey.
When Moses led the Hebrews through the desert, the Lord let fall a bread from heaven, which covered the ground each morning. It was called manna, and what was available each morning was for that day only. Some of the people, with concern for tomorrow, saved some of it from one day, but the following day it was inedible. They were punished for not trusting God's care for them. Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread. He called himself the bread of life, and he presented himself as life-giving food, giving a life that would be eternal. Obviously, on my way back to the Garden, I already have the sandwiches.
Eucharist ties in with so much of what Jesus is all about. On Calvary, he reversed the pollution of original sin with the antibiotic of his YES to the Father, completely neutralising the poison of the NO in the Garden. I was not present on that original Calvary, but the YES of then is repeated, and offered to the Father in every Mass, and I am offered an opportunity to add my YES to Jesus to his YES to the Father. The chalice represents the death of Jesus. "Father, if it's possible, let this chalice pass from me"(Lk. 22:42). Before I raise the chalice at the Offertory, I put a drop of water in the wine. In doing this, I am joining my YES to his.
Where did the water come from? That is the water of my Baptism. Water was poured on me back then, and someone else said a YES for me. Now I can do so myself, and I can do that every single day of my journey in life, as I head back to the Eternal Feast. Water represented both life and death for the Hebrews. Water was life-giving, especially in the barren desert, and yet it was water God used to defeat their enemies as they drowned in the Red Sea. Jesus turned water into wine, to show me what he can do with the one drop I offer him. He walked on water, to show that he had control over life and death.
For the Christian, death is like a pile of sand at the end of my life, which I can take, and sprinkle, a little at a time, as I journey along the road of life. For the Christian, death is what happens during my life-time. When was the last time you died for another? "Greater love than this no one has, that a person should lay down a life for another"(Jn. 15:13). I have to die to my selfishness, my greed, my pride, my arrogance, as I love, forgive, and reach out to others. It is in this dying that we enter into eternal life right now; we begin to live a quality of life that flows freely into the Sea of Love for eternity in heaven. We renew our commitment to this dying every time we share in Eucharist.
There is a beautiful story about the disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday morning. They are on their way home(as they think), dejected, disappointed, and very chest-fallen. They had lived with a dream that had become a nightmare, and it was all too much for them. They had lost hope, which is the stabiliser of life and living. They were joined by Jesus as they walked along, but they failed to recognise him. He asked them the reason for their apparent depression, and they were amazed that he, or anyone else, did not actually know what had happened back in Jerusalem. They proceeded to tell them, and, as they were finished, he proceeded to open their hearts to what actually did happen, and to make a connection between that and what the prophets of old had predicted would happen. It was all very interesting to them, but it was when they reached Emmaus that they finally came alert, opened their eyes, and recognised him. When he took a piece of bread, and offered to share it with them, they knew immediately that it was Jesus. The fact that they did not recognise him physically is understandable.
The post-Easter Jesus takes on many colours and disguises, and is not always easy to recognise. He is now to be found "where people are struggling for survival as human beings"(Cry the Beloved City). I find it very moving to hear what the disciples had to say after Jesus left them. "Were not our hearts burning within as he talked to us along the road, and explained the Scriptures to us?"(Lk. 24:32). What a beautiful journey.
This is very similar to what I have in mind as I now reflect on the accompaniment of Jesus in our lives, as we travel home. God could have loved us from a distance, but he chose not to. That is why and how Jesus can walk the way with us, and be the food and nourishment for the journey. He IS our Daily Bread. The secret, of course, is to keep my YES within the day. I cannot live today on a YES I said yesterday. I open my heart as well as my mouth when I receive Eucharist. Like Mary visiting Elizabeth, I carry Jesus with me wherever I go. "Lord, may your presence within me touch the hearts of those I met today, either through the words I say, the prayers I pray, the life I live, or the very person that I am". "Having given us Christ Jesus, will the Father not surely give us everything else?"(1 Cor. 1:5).
Bread figures largely in Scripture. When the Hebrews wanted to fast, or to come boldly before their God, they ate unleavened bread, or bread without yeast, which was tasteless and unpleasant "No leavened bread is to be eaten"(Ex. 13:3). "Do not offer bread made with yeast when you sacrifice"(Ex. 23:18). Bread figured among their food offerings. Bread also seemed to be their staple diet. Some of Jesus' miracles involved providing bread for the hungry, and it is interesting to note that when he wanted us to grasp the idea of the abundant life he offers us, he refers to himself as "the bread of life"(Jn.6:35). There is a hunger in the human spirit that no earthly food can satisfy. There is a hole in the human heart that nothing but God can fill.
There is an unusual incident in the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is given a scroll. Ezekiel was being sent on a mission by God to a very wayward stubborn people. Ezekial was told "You must give them my messages, whether they listen or not….Open your mouth and eat what I give you. 'Then I looked and saw a hand reaching out to me, and it held a scroll. The voice said to me 'Son of man, eat what I am giving you---eat this scroll! Then go and give its message to the people of Israel.' So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. 'Eat it all', he said. And when I ate it, it tasted as sweet as honey."(Ezek. 2:7-9; 3:1-3).
I think of this as a very good way to understand how the Spirit of God works in us. Firstly, the message has to be completely consumed, digested, and become flesh within us. Then WE become the message. "You write a new page of the gospel each day, by the things that you do, and the words that you say. People read what you write, whether faithful or true. What is the gospel according to you?" You may be the only book some people will ever read, and yet they can come to know Jesus and his message in and through you.
Another story in the Old Testament points to coming events. Elijah the prophet was given these instructions by God "Go to the east and hide by Kerith Brook at a place east of where it enters the Jordon river. Drink from the brook, and eat what the ravens bring you, for I have commanded them to bring you food." The ravens brought him bread each morning.(1 Kgs 17:2-4). Later on Elijah came across a widow with an only son. He asked her for water; as she was going to get it, he asked her for some bread also. She replied "I swear by the Lord your God that I don't have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar, and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die." Elijah told her of the Lord's promises, and told her to go ahead and bake what she had, and the Lord would look after her. "So she did as Elijah said, and she and Elijah and her son continued to eat from her supply of flour and oil for many days. For no matter how much they used, there was always enough left in the containers, just as the Lord promised through Elijah."1 Kgs 17:10-16).
When we reflect on such stories, and then bring ourselves back to reflect on the Bread that is offered us, surely our hearts must melt at the wonder of it all. "Having given us Christ Jesus, will the Father not surely give us everything else?"(Rom. 8:17). One of the greatest dangers we run is when we begin to take all this for granted, and it becomes just something we do on Sunday morning, before returning home for roast, spuds, and mushy peas for our dinner. I know it's not possible for the human heart to really grasp the extraordinary and awesome nature of the gift that is offered.
If we could clearly understand the power and significance of the gift, we would be overcome by our own weaknesses and inadequacies, in comparison with what is being offered. It is not necessary that I understand fully. All that is needed is a genuine FAITH/BELIEF in what I am invited to, and to receive the gift with a real sense of awe, joy, and gratitude.
I myself find that Mary, my heavenly Mother, is a wonderful help in all of this. From the time she first held that same body of Christ at Bethlehem, to the time when she held that same body, now dead, on Calvary, to the many times she received Eucharist, and right up to the time when she embraced her son at the gates of heaven,------all of this makes her only too willing to continue her role in me, another of her beloved children. When I was a child, I ran to my mother, absolutely sure that she could fix it, stitch it, bandage it, or make it go away. It's just wonderful that Jesus gives me his own Mother to do the same for me today.
Jesus speaks quite a lot of the place of Eucharist on our journey back to the Garden. He multiplied loaves to feed the hungry thousands, and then he went on to speak about another kind of bread that not only feeds the body, and saves lives, but feeds the soul, and gives unending life. "I assure you, Moses did not give them bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." (Jn. 6:32-33).
When the people asked him for that bread every day of their lives, Jesus replied "I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry again." (Jn. 6:35). As Jesus continues to become more and more specific and emphatic about his offer, many of his listeners became more and more cynical and incredulous. "Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. However, the bread from heaven gives eternal life to everyone who eats it. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; this bread is my flesh, offered so the world might live."(Jn.6: 48-51).
It was at this stage that 'many of his disciples turned away, and walked no more with him', because they considered what he said to be too farfetched and unreal. Jesus didn't run after them to call them back, to give them further explanations, or to water down his message. No, he turned to those who did not walk away, and he asked "Will you also go away?" (Jn. 6:67). A point that needs to be stressed here. Those who walked away made a decision. The reason he challenged the others is that they may not have made any decision, and had just stayed on out of curiosity, fear, or indifference. I honestly have to look at where I stand in all of this. It's so easy to follow the crowd, and just lag along listlessly. The offer from Jesus is infinite, awesome, divine, and enormously and prodigally generous. What a tragedy if it was met with indifference on my part.
The world's shortest, and, perhaps, most powerful play, is when Jesus enters heaven at the ascension. The Father says "I'm sorry, son". Jesus replies "Father, it wasn't the nails that hurt as much as the kiss". Chilling. I cannot see how I could possibly be on the right road, leading back to the Garden, if I do not fully avail of the daily manna that is mine for the taking. Not everybody gets to Mass every day, and that's not what I'm talking about here. I am speaking of the power of Eucharist, as a sustaining, nourishing, and transforming food, available along the way, whenever I can avail of it. It's what happens when I come back out the door after Mass that counts. Where do I go to from here? What difference should it make to my journey today?
Mother Teresa (Blessed) says that we in the West have no idea abut the pangs of hunger. "It was a very young girl who taught me one time. I gave her a piece of bread, which she proceeded to eat very slowly, crumb by crumb. 'Eat it', I said to her. 'Mother, I'm afraid to, because when I eat it, I will be hungry again'". As I come out from Mass I have been nourished with a food which should fill my deepest hungers for all time. I need never experience the REAL hunger of needing to belong, and to be loved.
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