The current recession is making many people forego things that they cannot at the moment afford. But one thing we cannot do without is food and drink. We can reduce it a bit, or buy cheaper and simpler food, but we cannot cut it out completely. We do need food for our bodily sustenance; but food means much more to us than petrol does to a car. Our eating and drinking have a greater dimension, a personal and social aspect.
We instinctively celebrate anything that is important to us by having a party, a feast. And the ordinary business of eating together is what holds people together, in the family or in other groups. Eating and drinking are not merely regrettable bodily functions which we will have as little to do with as possible if we are really spiritual. No; eating and drinking point beyond themselves to something deeper and more permanent, more human.
The fact is that the business of eating and drinking gives sustenance to the whole person, body and soul. Often in Scripture this line between nourishment for body and for soul is a fine one. The manna in the desert is a good example. The people were starving and rebellious. 'Why did we not stay to die in Egypt? At least we could eat our fill of bread and meat there'. So God gave them food in plenty, both meat and manna, because they needed it desperately, both to fill their bellies and quieten their angry hearts. Remember too the story of Elijah. When he was depressed and wished he was dead God gave him bread and water and insisted that he ate enough; and the food sustained him on his forty day journey to Horeb, the mountain of God, so that he could continue to carry out God's purposes.
The Land the children of Israel were promised was 'a land flowing with milk and honey', with flocks and herds, crops, vineyards - all pure gift for they had not worked for it. 'Open your mouth wide and I will fill it', says God. When they had reached the Land and settled in it, these expectations were transferred into the future when God would bring about his final purposes. But for this to take place the People would need to change and live in the right relationship with God and with one another. And this conversion is also described in terms of food. 'Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food' (Isaiah 55: 1-2). The final, expected Day of the Lord, the fulfilment of it all, is described as the great banquet with finest wine and the richest food.
Meanwhile, the daily and yearly Temple worship - their equivalent of our liturgical year - always involved food. The Temple sacrifices reaffirmed the covenant between God and his People, reminded them of what God had given and what he still promised them, and consequently of how they ought to live in the here and now. These sacrifices always involved food: animal offerings like the lamb at the Passover, or cereal offerings. The food was sacrificed to God, that is, it was made holy by being handed over to God; and then it was shared between God and those who offered it. So this was a real sharing between with God and the worshipper. It was like giving a special meal to your greatest friend. You share the meal together to express and strengthen your friendship.
With the coming of Jesus, God gives a new kind of food, which even his disciples found it hard to recognise. Jesus gently chides the crowd that thronged him after the feeding of the five thousand. 'You are seeking me because you had all the bread you wanted, not because you understood what that meant'. He is himself the bread which comes down from heaven. As Peter said: 'Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words of eternal life'. This is the food we are to seek, not just when we celebrate the Eucharist, but whenever we draw near to God in prayer, or try to hear his word in Scripture, or share his loving mercy with others in need.
The manna which our fathers ate in the desert was good and strengthened them on their journey. But their generation has passed away, and now Jesus offers us the bread which will last for ever. It is not simply food which strengthens us, body and soul, in the here and now. It is food which is God himself. He does not say: I give you the living bread. He says: I am the living bread. And this bread comes to us by way of sacrifice. 'The bread which I will give is my flesh, given for the life of the world'.
All is God's gift. So much so that in the end even the distinction between giver and gift breaks down. God does not merely give us food. He is our food. He does not merely give gifts. He is himself the gift.