Sunday, August 5, 2012

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15 / Ephesians 4:17, 20-24 / John 6:24-35

The folklore of the Celtic peoples is filled with concerns about warding off the baleful influence of the faeries. The peoples were, in times ancient and not so far in the past, worried not only how one might protect oneself against cruel spirits like hags or redcaps or boggarts, but also the otherwise beautiful or kindly spirits. Any interaction with these creatures of fantasy and twilight, whose very stuff was as alluring and insubstantial as that borderland between sleep and waking, was inevitably perilous. Even to eat the food of the land of Faerie was to be lost forever to the world of men, the mortal world we call our home.

While the proofs against the Fair Folk were many, one that was held to be sovereign was nothing other than simple bread. Carry a piece of home-baked bread, it was said, and no elfshot would strike you, no spell bewitch you, no fey, benevolent or malign, would cause you any harm.

Folktales are, of course, generally short on explanations, but we might well see why bread, plain and ordinary bread, should be proof against the spirits of twilight and dreams. First, bread binds us to life, life in its true and robust sense. However enticing a dream might be, the firm and honest truth of bread and its power to sustain real life is always more powerful. Second, bread binds us to the home. While this may be less true of us today, bread evokes the hearth, the family, the ordinary tasks and chores, as well as the rewards and pleasures, of an honest life. Third, bread binds us to work and labor. While faerie foods may appear magically and without effort, true food like bread reminds us of the work of the farmers who grew the wheat, the mill that processed the flour, the baker whose hands kneaded and worked the dough, as well as whose patience let him allow the yeast to leaven his loaf and the oven to bake it. Against the charming illusion of the false food of the fairies, bread alone could draw you back to what, where, and how we are truly meant to live.

When the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, desiring rather to return to the slavery of Egypt to die there as they sat by their fleshpots and ate their fill of bread, they were as bewitched as anyone deceived by elvish glamor. Like those cursed to remain in the Lands of Spring for having eaten faerie bread, the Israelites had fallen under a terrible charm, forgotten the bitterness of their slavery, and sought willingly to return to sorrow and death. Nothing that Moses and Aaron could do, no earthly power or work, could ever compete with the very worldly allure of the wealth and power of Egypt, the very earthly peril of famine. It is only when they come to possess the manna, the bread that the LORD has given, that they can be free of Egypt's spell over them.

Like bread as proof against the magic of Faerie, so does the bread of life, Jesus Christ, serve as the sole and sovereign ward against this world and its enticements. Jesus Christ, the living bread, is the only true life of those who have put away the old self and been renewed in the spirit to put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth. Without the life which comes from Christ our true bread, the illusory food of our former way of life can deceive us, and deprive us of the life we have been called to live. It is Jesus Christ, the bread of life, who alone can recall us to our real home, the homeland not of our birth, but rather of our vocation — the very Kingdom of God. It is Jesus Christ, the bread of life, who alone directs us to the work which sustains life, not the grinding of wheat to flour and its baking as bread, but the life-giving faith of believing in him, the one sent by the Father that we may no longer hunger or thirst.

Jesus Christ, alive in us through our faith by the power of the Spirit, and available to us in that pledge of the life to come, the Eucharist by which the Church is fed, can alone deliver us from those tempting and, however innocent or friendly they mean to be, ultimately fatal attractions of this world. With joy and confidence, let us receive that bread and walk without fear through the darkness of this night, and find in this heavenly food, a safe journey to the Father.