Recently I was invited to partake in a guided retreat, a rich slate of prayers, psalms, song, confession, and poetry, in the confines of my basement office. The very words of the invitation—retreat, paschal, mystery—were evocative. Breaking free of my to-do list, I ventured into the retreat on my computer, skimmed the content, and heard my spiritual stomach growl. Lately, what I have been ingesting—dissatisfying soundbites, coronavirus case counts, news alerts, and fear—has left me hollow. The retreat, in contrast, offered something substantial and filling. The leaders had woven together, with liturgical artistry, lustrous reflections on the Paschal mystery—God’s restorative act to release humans from sin’s strangle-hold, through Jesus Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

I clicked through readings and songs. I thought about checking The New York Times website. I forced myself to lean into silence. I wondered how my 82-year-old mother was doing in enforced isolation. I closed my eyes and listened to a haunting hymn: “Lord Jesus Christ, Life-giving Bread, may I in grace possess you. Let me with holy food be fed…”

What does it mean to “possess” Jesus, I wondered. Isn’t he supposed to possess me? And why does the phrase “Let me with holy food be fed” make me want to weep? But the answer to that question emerged as obvious. Have I not lately been living crisis to crisis and news bite to news bite? I am weak to my very bones. I feel famished and, sadly, tainted by the corruption that floats like noxious mist in our world. In the violent, Roman-ruled world of Christ, where corpses were nailed to trees across the countryside, I can only imagine how the occupied Jews daily reckoned with their powerlessness and longed to shield their eyes from horrors. They were all too familiar with sorrow. Constantly worried for their futures. Sorely famished for good news.

How many thousands did Jesus feed during his journeys of teaching and healing? I am well-familiar with the Bible stories, how he offered both physical and holy food, and people ingested it eagerly. According to one account, Jesus fed five thousand who followed him “because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick” (John 6:2). It was near the time of the Jewish Passover (or Paschal) festival, when he took five small barley loaves and two small fish and, in answer to the question “how far will they go among so many?,” he gave thanks and distributed the food to all the hungry people—as much as they wanted.

These stories make for high drama. The signs Jesus worked all pointed to his identity: his being God’s son and agent to a desperately hurting world. It is no wonder that the crowds wanted to crown him king and that his overwhelmed disciples were confused. Later he clarified for his disciples that the food he gives is “food that endures to eternal life.” And he boldly declared to them “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:27, 35).

I push away from my computer—that machine that tempts me to endless tangents. I discipline myself to continue the retreat. I imagine myself in the story of the 5,000 and the story of the questioning disciples. Running through the crowd following Jesus, I hear murmurs of awe, disbelief, and fervent hope. I push toward the authoritative man miraculously healing an endless line of sick people. I strain to catch every word of his prophetic teaching. And then he directs us all to sit down, acting the host before a feast. The five small loaves and two small fish—such a meager meal to give thanks for—are handed out by men with hard, calloused hands. And the portions multiply and multiply again, moving hand to hand, overflowing in abundance. How much will I take when it comes my way? Then this question captures me: How much do I want—of Jesus and the good sustenance he offers?

How much do I want of Jesus? Am I willing to release my tenacious self-reliance and graciously receive what Jesus is able to supply? Am I willing to fully take possession of his teaching and, in turn, experience transformation that may imbue me with new gifts—gifts of strength, endurance, deep wells of love, the Spirit? And then there’s my work in the world, because what we do and how we do it emerges out of our personhood, our repaired and revived personhood. The disciples’ work evolved through their relationship with Jesus. So, too, will mine and yours. “Lord Jesus Christ, Life-giving bread, may I in grace possess you…” The lyrics open up in the light of reflection. By possessing Jesus and what he offers, I am not only fed, I can rest and exist more fully.

One day we will all be released from today’s isolation and, eventually, the very confines of history and time. Envision with me thousands upon thousands sitting closely together in a verdant space, eating an inexhaustible feast with bare hands. Freely we pass life-giving bread to one another as secure co-communicants. We exult in our common need—for holy food, one another, and Jesus, the Bread of Life. In the meantime, I decide, every day, whether to take and eat the good fare offered by my teacher, healer, and generous host. Because Jesus sends no one away hungry or thirsty, I possess both the promise and the man, by his grace.

 

My Prayer

 

I come to you

In hunger and thirst.

Please fill me with your

Life-giving bread.

 

I come to you

With my fears and concerns.

Please fill me with your

Abundant hope.

 

You came as a baby,

Grew in authority,

Taught, healed, and gave

Thanks for the small.

 

You multiplied Life

For all those who followed.

Please fill us up with your

Spirit and Love.

 

Teach and direct me,

Feed me and fill me.

Guide me to serve as one

Healed and assured.

 

I give you thanks

In this time and this place,

For all that you’ve done,

my Savior and Lord.

 

Please see me, Lord,

My hands and my heart.

Possess me as

I possess you.

 

Oh Son of Life,

Bringer of peace,

Let my labor and life

Reflect you.

Amen.

 

_

Written by Susan Smetzer-Anderson, Ph.D., Upper House Communications Manager. The author thanks—

Phoebe Love, spiritual director and retreat facilitator, for permission to use A Lenten Day of Prayer: An invitation to explore the Paschal mystery

Micah Behr, composer and musician, who along with violinist Mary Shin, performs Lord Jesus Christ, Life giving bread (original music by Micah Behr, words authored by Johann von Rist and translated by Arthur T. Russel)

 

References

NIV Bible translation, The Gospel of John, chapter 6