On Food for the Journey
(Ex.24:3-8; Heb. 9:11-15; Mk.14:12-16, 22-26)
Food is such an important part of life. Many years ago, when our children were small, my wife and I bought a picnic basket. It held everything we needed to sustain us on a daytrip.
Picnicking, we found, was a wonderful way for our young family to connect, to enjoy each other’s company and to explore the world.
In every culture, food plays an important role. It underpins our health and well-being; children learn at mealtimes and social eating helps build relationships. That’s why we so often form friendships and do business over coffee or a meal.
We also become family by sharing a meal at a table.
The ancient Greeks used to give a meal to those who were about to start a journey. They called this custom the ephodion.
In Latin, they called this viaticus,[i] and the early Romans believed that a dying person’s last meal gave them strength to cross the River Styx, which separated the land of the living from the underworld. [ii]
Jesus understood all this. He knew that communities are formed around a table, and that breaking bread and sharing a cup help people to grow and connect. That’s why he gave us the Holy Eucharist, and said, ‘Take and eat. Take and drink. Do this in memory of me.’
Jesus had promised that he’d remain with us always, even to the end of the world (Mt.28:20). And the most effective way of doing this was through his greatest sacrament, the Eucharistic meal.
At the Last Supper, when Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover, they sat at a table in the Upper Room. Jesus took the bread and broke it, just as they broke his body on the Cross. Then he gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body. Take it and eat it, and remember that I’m with you, always.’
Then he took the cup filled with wine, blessed it and said, ‘Take this and drink it. This is my blood spilled for you on Calvary so that your sins may be forgiven.’
In the New Testament, the word body (soma in Greek) refers to the whole person, and not just to their flesh or physical body. And in Hebrew, there’s no specific word for body. A living being isn’t considered a person within a body; the body and the person are one and the same.
In other words, when Jesus offers us his body, he’s actually offering us his whole being, his very personhood.
Likewise, in Jewish thought, blood was believed to be the very life of a living being. So, when Jesus offers us his blood, he’s inviting us to ‘consume’ his very life. [iii]
When we receive the Eucharist, then, we are consumed with Jesus. He becomes part of us and we become alive in him. We are truly receiving Jesus’ actual being and life, and not just engaging in some symbolic re-enactment.
As well, keep in mind that in the Jewish culture, to remember is to make present that which is remembered. So, when Jesus says, ‘do this in memory of me,’ he means that he’s making himself present to us in a very real way.
Jesus often spoke about his Eucharistic presence. In John’s Gospel, for example, he says, ‘I’m 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).
And to St Augustine, Jesus once said: ‘Believe and eat me, and you’ll be changed into me’. [iv]
Richard Leonard says that when we receive the bread, blessed and broken, into our hands, and when we receive the cup, poured out and shared, we say ‘Amen’. By this word we agree to become just like Jesus himself: blessed, broken, poured out and shared in love with others. [v]
Our ‘Amen’ therefore means that we agree to go out into the world, to heal, to forgive and to help others, by doing just as Jesus did.
This isn’t always easy. That’s why we’ve been given the Holy Eucharist. That’s why we need the Holy Eucharist. Every time we go to Communion, we draw from Jesus the strength we need to live as he taught us to (Jn.6:53).
The early Christians used to call the body and blood of Christ ‘Food for the Journey’. And in 325AD the Church recommended that Holy Communion be given to the dying as ‘food for the journey’ – Viaticum.
Today, we are fortunate that this remarkable gift is so often available to us, and not just at the end of our lives.
We all need it.
troubled world needs it, too.
[i] The Latin word viaticus means ‘of or pertaining to a road or journey’.
[iii] Dominic Grassi & Joe Paprocki, Living the Mass. Loyola Press, Chicago, 2011:148-149.
[iv] Cardinal Saliege, Spiritual Writings. St Pauls Publications, Bucks. 1966:57.
[v] Richard Leonard, Preaching to the Converted. Paulist Press, New York. 2006:180-181.