Bread in Hand
At the death of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, the world of economics lost one of its most influential thinkers. He is perhaps best known for popularizing the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which is now a common English dictum.
Through consumer-trained eyes, we understand this phrase as Friedman intended: Anything billed “free of charge” still has a bill attached. It is both economic theory and lay opinion. Whatever goods and services are provided, someone must pay the cost. Thus, economically, we see that the world of business is first and foremost about profit and market share. And cynically, we suspect that every kind gesture or free gift has a hidden motive, cost, or expectation attached.
It was strange, then, to find myself thinking of “free lunches” as I was approaching the meal Christians call communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist—from the Greek eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving. Could my consumer mindset apply to this table as well? Was this really a free meal? Certainly the compulsion many feel to drudge up a sense of guilt at the table could be one sign of its costliness. Theological instinct immediately recoiled at this thought. Is this Christ’s cost or one we determine ourselves? Inherent in Jesus’s invitation to the table is the very freedom he came to offer: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). And yet, even as we are called to freely come to the meal, to consume Christ himself, are we not asked simply to empty ourselves before the one who calls? Is there a cost to partake of the Bread of Life?
Christ speaks openly that the way of the Cross is costly, but it does not require the kind of transaction consumer-hungry minds are quick to expect. The cost is his, even as he invites us to share in it. As the disciples gathered together in the upper room where they would participate in Jesus’ last supper and the first communion, Jesus told them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). He is both the Bread of Life and the one who paid the cost that it might nourish his table of guests. Our consumption at the table holds a great deal in which to participate.
Unfortunately, we are at times like the poet Alison Luterman who admits it is quite possible not to see the connection between what feeds us and the one who made it possible. She writes eloquently,
“Strawberries are too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfectly ripe ones even bruise at too heavy a human touch. It hit her then that every strawberry she had ever eaten—every piece of fruit—had been picked by calloused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represented someone’s knees, someone’s aching back and hips, someone with a bandanna on her wrist to wipe away the sweat. Why had no one told her about this before?”
Holding the bread of the Lord’s Supper in our hands, we are indeed faced with a costly meal. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19).
Stories of hunger and consumption pervade the world around us. The same theme pervades the gospel story, but in a manner that transforms both our hunger and our ideas of what it means to consume. The consumer of Christ is not stockpiling one more product for personal use and fulfillment. Nor does he or she partake of a free service that requires a minimum purchase or a small commitment. Jesus’ words are neither selfish nor small: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56). Those who come to the table cannot consume with the same disconnectedness with which we consume countless meals and materials. We are ushered into a community, an interconnected life, the Body of Christ himself, and it leaves an entirely different imagination of the world in our grasp. The Christian makes the very counter-cultural claim that one can desire what one already has. Every broken piece of bread represents nothing less than a Person who was broken for us, who gives everything away to present the hungry with an invitation to join him, to taste and see that God is good.
And he calls us to come willing to empty ourselves as completely as he did on the Cross. For the free meal that is offered in remembrance of Jesus overturns our lives as consumers and turns our hunger inside-out. As Augustine imagines the voice on high saying, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you, like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”(1) Christ is unlike anything else we can consume and desire in this world. For all who are hungry, the Bread of Heaven has come down.
(1) Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 124 [Book VII, 16].