Food for the journey

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Fans of Lord of the Rings will be familiar with Lembas bread, also known as elven waybread, the special bread given to the Fellowship of the Ring by the elves to sustain them on their journey. It was said to be more strengthening than any food made by man.

J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, steeped in the scriptures and Catholic history, so it is no wonder that the supernatural and life-giving bread he created should have Biblical precedence.  In our first reading from Mass this Sunday (1 Kg 19:4-8) the prophet Elijah journeys but a single day into the desert before he collapses, exhausted.  After he eats bread given to him by an angel of God, however, he regains enough strength not only to travel another day, but forty more days to Mount Horeb.

One of the major characteristics of the Catholic faith is the very physical nature of much of what we do and believe.  We see this in Elijah’s story today.  When Elijah is exhausted in the desert, God sends him an angel, not to simply tell him to persist in faith, but to give him bread and water.  In this way both his body and his spirit are sustained.

God made man as both a physical and spiritual being.  Our great hope is that after the resurrection of the dead we may exist as God made us to be, body and soul, in the new heaven and new earth.  Since God made us as both physical and spiritual beings, it should not surprise us that God relates to us in both physical and spiritual ways.

This is the great beauty of the sacraments; that in each one God communicates His grace to us via a physical sign.  With baptism that sign is water; with confirmation it is holy oils; with marriage it is husband and wife, and so forth.  But there is one sacrament where God communicates Himself to us in such a special way that we simply refer to it as the Blessed Sacrament.  I speak of the Eucharist.

Under the species of bread and wine, those who receive the Eucharist receive the full Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.  We bring ordinary bread and wine to the altar where it is blessed by the hands of a priest, who repeats the words of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.  “This is my body, which is given up for you,” and “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant.”

Writing to the Emperor of Rome in the mid-second century, St. Justin Martyr explains what the Eucharist means to the Christian people.

This food we call the Eucharist, and no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that our doctrines are true, who has been washed with the bath for the remission of sins and rebirth [baptism], and who is living as Christ commanded.  We do not receive these as common bread and drink.  For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.  Likewise, we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of His word — and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed — is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology 65-66).

Out of all the sacraments, the Eucharist alone is called The Sacrament because it most perfectly reflects the sacramental nature of Christ Himself.  In Jesus Christ, the Divine Logos became incarnate.  That word — incarnate — which we profess in our creed, simply means “enfleshed.”  He took on flesh in order to communicate Himself to us.  The Eucharist is the extension of the Incarnation, in which Christ becomes not only flesh and blood, but flesh and blood that we can ourselves consume.

God desires to nourish both our bodies and spirits.  Moreover He desires to commune with us most intimately, to make His dwelling with us.  The Eucharist is how this is achieved.

Lembas Bread

The angelic bread given to Elijah, the manna in the desert; these were but signs of the true bread from heaven Christ offers.  Jesus is blunt about it in our reading today.  “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died.”  It sustained them, but only for a while.  The manna was the shadow.  What Jesus offers is the substance.  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).

In The Lord of the Rings, Lembas bread was a sign of goodness and holiness.  It was offensive to those who were corrupted by evil (Gollum refuses to eat it).  Likewise, we are taught by the Church to prepare ourselves to receive the Eucharist by remaining in a state of grace, participating in sacramental reconciliation (confession) if we have committed mortal sin, and fasting for at least an hour before we receive.  As St. Justin said above, “we do not receive these as common bread and drink.”  St. Justin says the Eucharist not only nourishes us, but changes us.  “You are what you eat,” as they say.  When we consume the Eucharist we consume goodness, purity and sanctity.  We consume love.

Like elven waybread, the Eucharist is food for the journey — in this case, our journey through this life and into the life to come.  Nothing else will do to give us strength into eternity but He Who is the Living Bread.

“There is no surer pledge or dearer sign of this great hope in the new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells, than the Eucharist.  Every time this mystery is celebrated, the work of our redemption is carried on and we break the one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live forever in Jesus Christ” (CCC 1405).