Take This Bread
Early one winter morning, I walked into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian — or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut. But on other long walks I’d passed the beautiful wooden building, with its shingled steeples and plain windows, and this time I went in, on an impulse, with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity.
The rotunda was flooded with slanted morning light. A table in the center of the open, empty space was ringed high above by a huge neo-Byzantine mural of unlikely saint figures with gold halos, dancing; outside, in the back, water trickled from a huge slab of rock set against the hillside. Past the rotunda, and a forest of standing silver crosses, there was a spare, spacious area without pews, where about twenty people were sitting.
I walked in, took a chair and tried not to catch anyone’s eye. There were windows looking out on a hillside covered in geraniums, and I could hear birds squabbling outside. Then a man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of the people, and long silences framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous.
We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying, “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening — I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening — the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening — God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth — utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
The bread, I learned over following Sundays, was baked by the people I took communion with. Caroline made the crumbly, slightly sour loaf I’d tasted first; someone called Tom made a dense whole-wheat bread; Jake baked a sublime brioche. Each of the loaves was slashed with a cross, and when the people at the table broke the bread, if I was standing close enough I could smell the yeast. The wine was sticky and sweet: pale gold, not at all red, but it warmed my throat as I swallowed and then passed the cup to the person next to me. “The blood of Christ,” I’d repeat, in turn.
Yet obviously it wasn’t blood: it was Angelica fortified wine, alcohol 18%, from a green screwtop bottle, as I saw once when I peeked in the church kitchen. It was no different in its basic chemical makeup from the Zinfandel I’d drink with my brother in between bites of a nice hangar steak. So then was it a symbol? Did the actual wine symbolically represent the imagined blood? No, because when I opened my mouth and swallowed everything changed. It was real.
I went around and around like this, humiliated by my inability to articulate, even to myself, the nature of what was happening. It seemed as crazy as saying I had eaten a magic potion that could make me fly. Much later, a friend would tell me that I’d looked like a deer in the headlights during that time. “You didn’t know what direction to go in, you simply stopped. You were mystified, confused… what you were experiencing in your body didn’t jive with what you knew in your head.” He laughed gently. “You thought you had lost your mind.”
I thought I probably had. I went through my days excited beyond words, frequently on the verge of tears, then confused and scared. My throat was tight as if facing danger or intense sexual excitement; I’d be ravenously hungry then unable to eat, as you are when you’re heartbroken, or newly in love.
Bit by bit, I was getting a picture, one that might very well have been incomprehensible to fellow Christians in stern fundamentalist Nigeria, or pro-life Colorado, or even other Episcopal parishes in San Francisco. Of course, just like them, I was becoming more and more convinced that I was right, and that what I had figured out about faith, on my own lovely little spiritual adventure, was going to uplift and sanctify and generally improve my life.
When I talked with my secular friends, I could make a thoughtful case for church as a site for social change, or earnestly analyze the denominational politics of Christianity, as if that was what I cared about. I tried to justify my interest in St. Gregory’s by telling my wife Martha that understanding contemporary politics required understanding religion. I acted as if I were an interested reporter, and not really that hungry.
The reality was different: deep, non-rational, desiring.
Poking around in the Bible, I found clues about my deepest questions. Salt, grain, wine and water; fig trees, fishermen and farmers. There were Psalms about hunger and thirst, about harvests and feasting. There were stories about manna in the wilderness, and prophets fed by birds. There was God appearing in radiance to Ezekiel and handing him a scroll: “Mortal,” he said, “eat this scroll,” and Ezekiel swallowed the words, “sweet as honey,” and knew God.
And then in the New Testament appeared the central, astonishing fact of Jesus, proclaiming that he himself was the bread of heaven. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood,” he said. I thought how outrageous Jesus was to the church of his time: he didn’t wash before meals, he said the prayers incorrectly, he hung out with women, foreigners, the despised and unclean. Over and over, he told people not to be afraid. I liked all that, but mostly I liked that he said he was bread, and told his friends to eat him.
As I interpreted it, Jesus invited notorious wrongdoers to his table, airily discarded all the religious rules of the day, and fed whoever showed up, by the thousands. In the end he was murdered for eating with the wrong people.
And then — here’s where the story got irrational. I didn’t exactly “believe” it, the way I believed in the boiling point of water, or photosynthesis, but it seemed true to me — wholly true, in ways that mere facts could never be. I believed this God rose from the dead to have breakfast with his friends.
I read about the crazy days after Jesus’ arrest, death and burial, when the terrified disciples were scattering, just as I’d seen peasants and revolutionaries run from the violence of soldiers in Latin America. A stranger hailed them on the road to Emmaus. They told him what had happened, and he explained it all by citing Scripture, recounting old prophecies in impressive detail. Then, according to the book, they came to a village and invited the stranger to eat with them, as the night was drawing near. He sat down at the table, took bread, and broke it. Suddenly “their eyes were opened,” reported the book. “He made himself known in the breaking of bread, and they felt their hearts on fire.” Then he vanished. In another story, he reappeared cooking food on the beach. In another, he showed up to tell his followers that he was hungry and wanted something to eat. They gave him a piece of fish.
All of it pointed to a force stronger than the anxious formulas of religion: a radically inclusive love that accompanied people in the most ordinary of actions — eating, drinking, walking — and stayed with them, through fear, even past death. That love meant giving yourself away, embracing outsiders as family, emptying yourself to feed and live for others. The stories illuminated the holiness located in mortal human bodies, and the promise that people could see God by cherishing all those different bodies the way God did. They spoke of a communion so much vaster than any church could contain: one I had sensed all my life could be expressed in the sharing of food, particularly with strangers.
I couldn’t stop thinking about another story: Jesus instructing his beloved, fallible disciple Peter exactly how to love him: “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter fussed: “Of course I love you.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Peter fussed some more.
“Do you love me?” asked Jesus again. “Then feed my sheep.”
It seemed pretty clear. If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.