Bread Come Down from Heaven
This post first appeared at Contemplative Journal in September 2014.
Jesus said to the people, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
Eight years ago, I was living, for the first extended period of time, outside of the United States. I was in Dharamsala in Northern India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, learning the ins and outs of Tibetan culture, history, and politics during a semester abroad. At the time, I was also a three-year old Episcopalian, and Eucharist had become a regular part of the rhythm of my life—walking forward to the altar rail, kneeling, holding out my hands, and receiving the bread and the wine, the Body and Blood of Christ.
In India, however, I didn’t have easy access to church services, and I had Tibetan language classes on Sunday mornings. Pulled out of my normal sacred rhythm, I sorely missed the prayers and ritual of the Church. One evening I sat in a small café, drinking tea with a fellow traveler I’d met along the way. I told her how much I missed the Eucharist and wished there was some way I could receive it while there.
On my way home, I walked around a bend in the road and a small Hindu temple caught my eye. I found myself walking towards it. As I approached, the resident swami caught sight of me and walked forward in welcome. He spoke English with a thick accent, and after we had talked for a few minutes, he asked “Are you a follower of Christ?” Caught a little off guard, I said that I was, and he then joyfully said, “Muslims pray to Allah, Christians to Christ, and Hindus to their gods, but we all are one!”
I learned that his name was Swami Shiva Shankar, that he had work to do, and that I was invited back later in the evening. He walked inside and I turned to leave, but quickly he reappeared, walking towards me with hand outstretched and fist closed. I instinctively opened my palm, into which he emptied a handful of puffed rice, and said “Eat.”
I took the food to my mouth; it tasted sweet. He then led me to the shrine area where he poured a spoonful of milk that had been given in offering over the food in my hand and handed me a banana that had also been brought as an offering. Now I could go.
As I walked around the curve in the road, eating this holy food, offered to God and returned to the people, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of Eucharist, of the Body and Blood of Christ given for me in this moment, in this encounter, in this food. I received Communion.
Jesus said to the people, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus shows up and offers nourishment in the most surprising and unexpected of ways. In puffed rice, milk, and bananas, in bread and wine, in the community of people around us. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” And those around him respond, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John6:41-42). How can a carpenter, a fisherman, someone so ordinary, come from heaven?
Perhaps Jesus was trying to tell us what the ancient Celtic Christians symbolized so well with the beautiful Celtic knots that covered their crosses, jewelry, and illuminated Gospel manuscripts—that heaven and earth are intimately intertwined, inseparably connected. Heaven is not a distant reality, but is right here, right now, as the deepest and truest place in our hearts.
The Celts, like the Hebrew people before them, believed that we encountered God in the ordinary, in the rhythms of life, in the natural world, in birth and in death, in bread and in wine. Heaven, God, the Holy, is woven into the world all around us, waiting to be discovered in the most unlikely of places, if we only have eyes to see.
Jesus was always pointing to God in all of the wrong places, in those whom everyone around him was certain that God had nothing to do with—sinners, tax-collectors, prostitutes, outcasts. And he sat and feasted with them, saying This is what the kingdom of God looks like—a feast to which all of the wrong people have been invited! “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt. 8:11).
The implication is, of course, that many unexpected ones will be there. It is far too easy to say, “Certainly the non-Christians won’t be at the feast!” or “You can’t encounter Christ in food offered to Hindu gods!” But I hear Jesus saying, “You just might be surprised!” And I hear Swami Shiva Shankar’s words, just before I encountered Christ in the humble, holy food he gave me, “We all are one.” We all are interconnected, woven together like heaven and earth in a single Whole. If we could see this, see that we are one human family, one Body of Christ, we would see the table set and the kingdom come.
Those who challenged Jesus couldn’t accept that a simple carpenter and fisherman could be bread from heaven, that God could come to us in so ordinary a way. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” It’s important to not make this Mystery smaller than it is. The bread that Christ will give for the life of the world is his flesh, and we—the whole human family into which he was born—are his flesh. We, in all of our ordinariness, in all of our brokenness and failings, are bread come down from heaven, God’s incarnate body.
Jesus is saying, not only, “I am the bread come down from heaven” but “You are the bread come down from heaven.” And if you feel unworthy of this title, unworthy of being God’s life in the world, you stand with those very ones who said, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say these things?” God can’t be in me—I’m too ordinary, I’m not special enough, I’m not perfect. But the ordinary, the outcast, the simple and broken is exactly where God makes God’s home, exactly who God invites to the banquet.
Are you ready to be so bold as to say, “I am the bread that came down from heaven”? We are all Christ’s body in the world, the bread of heaven, the life of God intended to nourish each other. We are members of One Body, called to feed and be fed, and to discover Christ in the most unexpected of places.