I am the living bread that came down from heave; whoever eats this bread will live forever. (John 6:51)
In their book Sleeping with Bread, authors Matthew Linn and Dennis and Sheila Fabricant Linn tell the story of a group of orphans from World War II who had been rescued and taken to a refugee camp. “Many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night,” they wrote.
They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them: “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
This moving story tells us how deeply people yearn for security. We all need to know that our basic necessities will be cared for—that we will have food, shelter, and safety when we wake up. Having gone so long without that assurance, these children clung to their bread as a concrete, physical reminder that they were finally safe and secure.
Isn’t this a wonderful way for us to think about Jesus and the Bread of Life that he gives us? We know that the Eucharist is one of our most basic spiritual necessities. We know that we need to receive it every Sunday so that we can have the nourishment we need to love God and one another. So let’s take a look at how we can take this precious gift of living bread with us throughout our weeks—even if we can’t hold it close to us every moment.
The Bread of the Passover. Let’s begin by looking back at the story of the first Passover. On the night before the Hebrews fled Egypt, God told them to prepare a special meal that included roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and the unusual addition of unleavened bread. The bread had to be unleavened because the people had to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice; there was no time for the dough to rise. Later, as the Passover tradition grew, the Israelites came to understand that the leaven, or yeast, was also a symbol for sin and the “puffiness” of pride that could infect the whole nation.
Another Passover tradition centered on the wine. At four different points during the meal, the people were to drink a cup of wine. These four cups were linked to the four most important promises God had made to the people: “I will bring you out (from unjust labor); I will deliver you (from servitude); I will redeem you (with my outstretched arm); I will take you (as my own people and make you a nation).”
So the bread and wine, each in its own way, served as symbols of the freedom that God had given the children of Israel. They were signs of the peace and security he had given them when he rescued them from slavery and brought them into the Promised Land.
The Bread of the Last Supper. If we fast—forward twelve hundred years, we see another meal taking place just before another exodus. The meal is the Last Supper, and the exodus is Jesus’ death on the cross. During this meal—which was a Passover celebration—Jesus took bread and wine and turned them into something far more powerful than symbols of freedom and security. He turned them into his own Body and Blood. He infused the bread and wine with his own life, the same life that he would pour out for us to set us free from sin.
The bread of the Last Supper was more than a reminder of how quick we must be to escape the snares of sin. It is Jesus himself, who gives us the grace to say no to sin. It is Jesus himself, who heals our wounded hearts and teaches us how to love one another. It is Jesus himself, who nourishes us spiritually so that we can become more and more like him.
Likewise, the wine was not just a reminder of God’s promises to release his people from slavery and bring them into the Promised Land. It was Jesus’ own blood, the blood of a new and everlasting covenant between God and us. This new covenant actually fulfilled the promises of God: the promise that Jesus would die for our sins, the promise that through his resurrection, we could be delivered from the power of sin, and the promise that we could become sons and daughters of God destined for heaven.
So the bread and wine of the Last Supper were signs to the disciples of the freedom Jesus was about to bring—freedom from sin, condemnation, and death. But because they were filled with Jesus’ own divine life, these signs didn’t just symbolize freedom. They made that freedom available to them.
The Bread of the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). This is precisely what we do every time we celebrate the Mass. We remember Jesus and what he has done for us.
There are two ways to define the word remember. We remember how to cook a certain meal. We remember how to drive a car or ride a bicycle. We remember how to add and subtract. In this sense, our memory helps us function in life.
But the word remember can also describe the way we recall an important moment in our lives. Think about the joy you feel when you recall your wedding day, the birth of your first child, or the time you received that big promotion at work. Think also about the sadness you feel when you recall the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the breakdown of a friendship. As you remember these events, both sad and joyful, you feel as if you are reliving them all over again. It’s as if you are transported back in time and experience once again the joy, the excitement, the fear, or the sadness you originally felt. The event comes alive for you.
It’s this second way of remembering that is central to the Mass. We weren’t present at the Last Supper, but because of the grace of the sacrament and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can still feel as if we were there. We can still picture ourselves with the disciples hearing Jesus say, “This is my body. . . . This is my blood.” And remembering this moment of grace can help us find the same peace and security that those World War II orphans found: Today, Jesus is giving me himself as Living Bread, and he will give himself to me tomorrow—for the rest of my life.
The Bread of Remembering. This sounds hopeful and inspiring, but it can also sound unrealistic. How can we ever “remember” the Last Supper so fully? How can we feel as if we’re really in the upper room? The first answer to these questions is one of faith: we can experience the Last Supper because Jesus promised to be with us in a special way when we gather to break bread. On a practical level, this means engaging our faith as we also engage our memories and imaginations. Here are some suggestions for how you can do this.
Try to get to the church a few minutes before Mass begins. Use that time to put aside distractions and to focus yourself on the Lord. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you recall the Last Supper. Ask him to help you imagine yourself at the foot of the cross and at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. Tell him, “Holy Spirit, I trust that you can make this Mass come alive for me.”
In that quiet time just before you receive Communion, fix your imagination on the historical Jesus. Using the first way of remembering, recall the truths about who Jesus is. He is almighty God, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. Remember that he offered his life on the cross to set you free from sin. Recall that Jesus wanted to do this because he loves you. Let these memories move you to do the only thing you can do—thank and praise him for his sacrifice.
Then, as you receive Communion, keep telling yourself that this Living Bread and this Wine of the Covenant have the power to change you. Just as God delivered the Israelites from slavery, Jesus wants to fill you with his love and help you grow closer to him.
Jesus, the Bread of Life. Follow these simple steps, and see what happens. You may feel more peaceful. You may feel more love for Jesus. You may find the grace to overcome a persistent pattern of sin. You may sense Jesus telling you how much he loves you. If anything like this happens, thank the Holy Spirit; he is inspiring your memory. He is telling you that Jesus is your safety and security. He is the Bread of Life, and you can keep him close to your heart all the time, just as those orphans kept their bread with them.