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Daily bread in our prayer and in our world
We live at a time when there is widespread starvation throughout the world, and we are instantly aware of it through the press and through television. The bread petition of the prayer that Jesus taught his followers raises questions for us which were probably not so urgent for most of the generations that lived before us. 'hen we express our trust and gratitude towards God for the gift that nourishes and sustains us, there must be a connection between this attitude and the attitudes of committed Christians to needy fellow human beings.
Like all the peoples of the world in its long history, Christians have been and are tempted to evade this connection. It would be easier simply to identify our religious faith and its demands with ritual observances and private piety. But our own Scriptures and tradition convict us of inconsistency when we do that. There are connections. There have always been connections. If we ignore them they come back to haunt us, so we had best ask honestly what these connections are. Upon reflection, each of the meanings pointed out by Father Sabugal in the foregoing article is related !to the problem of mass starvation in our world today.
Our Daily Bread — Our Daily Responsibility
The bread that is asked for in the Lord's Prayer is shown to be in the first place a figurative way of referring to all the necessities of life. Those who have given up all kinds of wordly security in order to place their trust in God alone as followers and companions of Jesus, acknowledge their total dependence on God for sustenance. But this means, of course, acknowledging one's proper place in God's creation, in which the earth is given to the whole human community. It means also acknowledging the dependence of creatures, which is not only a dependence upon God the Creator, but also interdependence among human persons, and also interdependence in the ecology of the earth and of the universe. We petition God for the necessities of life, claiming that we put our trust in God alone. But that must surely mean that we accept the divine order in creation and will cooperate with it and implement it as far as in us lies. In other words, in this petition for °bread" we are not wholly passive. The petition is also a statement of intent, of commitment, concerning the manner of our ownership and use, of our exploitation and distribution of the resources of this good creation. The petition for bread implies an attitude of stewardship, of accountability with respect to material resources. It implies indebtedness for all that we have and enjoy — an indebtedness that calls for gratitude. But gratitude to God is always appropriately expressed by care and concern for fellow creatures, because they are dear to God who has created us interdependent for sustenance, for life itself, and for the wealth of the spirit.
Not on Bread Alone...
As pointed out by Father Sabugal, there is a subtle play on words and images and ideas in the petition for bread. The petition comes in the context of the gospel tradition in which we also hear the words of Jesus, maintaining that the sustenance of a human life is not only bread, or physical resources, but mainly the Word of God. It is by the Word of God that all is created in the first instance. It is by the Word of God that breath goes into and comes forth from the human person. It is the Word of God spoken by the prophets that calls together a godly people, a covenant people, a people to complete the creation by a community life of justice and piety. But the Word of God spoken by the prophets returns again and again to the same theme: fidelity to God and justice to the poor and powerless, the needy and the stranger, the widow and the orphan, the slave and the alien. Finally, when the Word of God is spoken through and in Jesus, it reaches us as a word of all-embracing compassion for those who suffer physical want and pain, as well as for those who are oppressed, despised and excluded. Indeed, the community of Jesus in its earliest manifestations, is marked by the concern to exclude none, to care for the needs of all, to have none go in want among them. And in the late days of Roman paganism we know that it caused some embarrassment to upholders of the old religions that Christian charity was extended to the non-Christian needy as well as the Christian.
In spite of this, in subsequent centuries there has been a tendency to forget this earlier understanding and to propose a rather ethereal and "spititualized" idea of what it means to petition the Heavenly Father for "bread", and of what it means to live by "every word that comes from the mouth of God". There has been a certain inclination to think that it is possible to be concerned for the salvation of others while ignoring their acute daily needs in the material, social and political realm. A truly biblical and truly traditional piety cannot condone this separation of body and spirit because human persons are not disembodied spirits, nor even spirits "imprisoned" in bodies, as the Gnostics of the early centuries of the common era would have it. According to the biblical understanding of the human person and the human situation, to live by the Word of God, which is in the last instance, our true nourishment, involves the totality of our being — our bodily, social, historical, practical everyday existence with all its needs and all its tasks. It surely means to live accepting responsibility for all the needs of others. Starving populations and people suffering from generations of malnutrition and deficiency diseases are not well disposed to transcend their situation and raise their minds and desires above their own immediate needs. These needs are simply too urgent for them. Our instincts of self-preservation, and our parenting instincts, secure an order of priority that is not concerned with what may ultimately be more important, but rather with what is immediately most desperate and urgent for survival. It is when nothing is desperately urgent for survival because bask needs are met, that there is an easy freedom to look beyond one's own immediate needs. One can point to exceptions, but they always turn out to be people who, at some earlier time in their lives, have known what it is to be liberated from the constant anxious struggle for sheer survival. Indeed they are often people who, at an earlier time in their lives, enjoyed considerable privileges and advantages in their society.
There is no doubt that to live by the Word of God as one's primary nourishment is to care for those in need. The great Russian philosopher, Nicolai Berdyaev, was fond of saying that bread for others is always a spiritual matter. Christians ought to be aware of this in any case, because the central action that draws us together and gives us our identity is the Eucharist. Again, there is a play on words, symbols and ideas in the petition for bread. It certainly refers not only to the physical necessities of life but also to the bread of the Eucharist. The meaning of Eucharist is contained in many levels of symbolism, built upon the Jewish table grace, the Friday evening blessing of the wine, the Passover Seder, and the farewell supper of Jesus with his more intimate friends. Eucharist is not only concerned with the eating of bread but with its sharing. Whenever we eat we are, as it were, being created. A table grace is an acknowledgement of that. But when we sit down to a meal we also enjoy table fellowship, and to pray a table grace together is always in some measure to acknowledge how good it is — indeed how nourishing it is to our hearts and minds and spirits — to enjoy that table fellowship with others. Moreover, when we pray together over the breaking and sharing of bread, we thank not only God the Creator but also all those who have labored to grow and harvest and mill the grain and to bake and pack and transport the bread. It is, therefore, an acknowledgement of dependence on God and at the same time of dependence on the work and good will of others, on whom our lives contantly depend. Such a table grace over bread already carries within itself several levels of imagery and meaning. It celebrates the bonds that offer us our being, our identity and our hope.
Our Eucharistic Bread
The Eucharistic bread used by Christians of the western churches is usually unleavened, because of the continuity that we see between our Eucharist and the Passover Seder of Israel. We use the "bread of affliction", which is also the bread of the radically new, the great break-through into peoplehood and reconciliation, the bread of a covenant meal. That unleavened bread of the Passover Seder resembles the bread of the very poor, the bread of desert nomads, and in our own times the bread of the Third World peoples. It is the bread of hasty flight, the bread of refugees, of displaced persons, of the homeless and uprooted. But for that very reason it is "new bread", not contaminated with the leaven from earlier batches in a tradition of sourdough baking. It becomes the symbol for a new beginning, a new hope. The shared bread of the poor and oppressed is the new bread of hope and life. This also holds further implications. The use of that unleavened bread in the Eucharist suggests that the sharing of modest sufficiency is the divine intention in the world, and is the saving community action in the world once it is distorted by sin. It suggests that the sharing of modest sufficiency is what brings happiness, not the hoarding of needless abundance.
Eucharist is not only the sharing of symbolic bread. It is the sharing of the self-gift of Jesus in life and in death. Responding to the Passover question about the meaning of the unleavened bread at the supper, Jesus linked it forever with his own death and his own love. 'It is the breaking of my body in death; share that with me". It is more than a question of receiving and eating. It is a question of sharing, and what is to be shared is the self-gift of Jesus to be bread for others. We can share, of course, by receiving that self-gift for our own benefit. But that is only one aspect of it. The other, and inseparable, aspect is to share what Jesus does, that is, to share his self-gift for the sustenance of others. This has many dimensions. One becomes bread for others in many ways both material and spiritual — by producing food or distributing it, by earning money and paying for it, by service and friendship, by inspiration and challenge, and so forth. But the most basic way to do as Jesus does, thereby fully sharing Eucharist with him, is to share the resources that we have with the needy. The earliest Church was well aware of this, as we see from the Acts of the Apostles and from the Letters of Paul. But through the ages there has been a tendency to forget and to separate Eucharistic worship from the everyday, mundane concerns of human life in society. Perhaps this is because Christian communities became large and unwieldy. Perhaps it is because the poor seem far away and not part of the community in which we worship. Yet they are all the "people of God° in the widest and basic sense of the term. God cares for all. They are one with us in creation and in destiny, and we are called to care for all also.
Gift of Bread — Gift of the Spirit
It is significant for us that Luke sees the "daily bread" as reference also to the gift of the Holy Spirit by which human persons come to the new life and are able to continue to live the new life. The breath of God is the earliest sustenance for human life in the Genesis creation accounts, and it is always by the breath of God that the prophetic call goes forth and the divine order is reestablished in human communities. When we today ask for daily bread, and see that not only in terms of physical sustenance, but in terms of the Holy Spirit, we have to reflect on what that means. What is the divine spirit, the breath of God, breathed into human beings? The prophets of Israel and the New Testament tell us it is a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of God-fearing generosity, that is, good news to the poor, healing to the crushed and oppressed, liberation to captives, a day of vindication of the hopes of the forgotten. Here again, in the course of the centuries there has been a certain tendency to "spiritualize" this, and to understand the Holy Spirit as somehow detached and remote from the everyday and ordinary affairs of the world and its peoples. We have come to think of a sacred history and a profance history side by side, as though people might be starving in famines of huge proportions in various regions of the world and that would have little or nothing to do with the sacred history. If we return to the Bible and especially to the words of Jesus and the prayer that he taught his followers, we shall find that this division of the sacred and the profane did not exist in the life and teaching of Jesus. All creation, in all its aspects, is the realm of God's authority and of God's saving care. When Jesus teaches his followers the petition for bread, it is to be undestood as a response of trust and gratitude and willing cooperation with the divine purpose in the world, which certainly includes the sharing of modest sufficiency, and certainly implies for Christians a 'preferential option for the poor" and an immediate preoccupation with the hungry of the world.
* Dr. Monika K. Hellwig
is Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. and author of several books, including The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, New York, Paulist Press and Jesus the Compassion of God, M. Glazier Inc.