Bodies need nourishing, whether it is an individual body, a corporate body or a spiritual body. We need to be fed with the food that sustains, that is most appropriate to each body. Historically we see the corporate body of Israel fed by God in the wilderness with the material stuff of manna, necessary for life, and the subsequent entry of the people into a land of physical abundance. The physical salvation of the Israelites through manna, however, was “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:3). It is spiritual nourishment that speaks to our true homeland with God, but the manna was a guide to that spiritual food.
In Christianity we interpret the truth of the Israelite experience as a type, a foreshadowing of what was to come, not in the sense that God’s feeding of the people in the wilderness was insufficient, but that the ancient types point to spiritual fulfilment. Biblical scholars today properly focus on the literal sense of Scripture and do not minimize the reality of the Israelite experience, which itself was true physical and spiritual nourishment. But in Jesus’ own interpretation, we see the manna understood as a type of the bread of heaven. The food of the Eucharist, therefore, recalls the manna in the wilderness, memorializes Jesus’ sacrifice, creates unity and points us to our true spiritual homeland.
When Jesus interpreted the Last Supper as his body and blood soon to be offered on the cross, Jesus also offered the church a memorial of his sacrifice, which is represented upon the altar at each Mass. Like the memory of the Israelite salvation from captivity, which is memorialized at Passover, so in the Eucharist, Jesus’ own sacrifice is memorialized in the life of the church.
The Eucharist becomes a source of memory, but also corporate unity for the church, because when we break bread, we do not divide the body but participate in a sign of unity: “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body.” This sharing has an ecclesial aspect in Paul, seen here and in 1 Corinthians 11, in which we are called to discern the corporate body of the church and to care for its individual members, but Paul certainly understands the mysterious participation of the members of the body in Christ’s body and blood.
Paul asks: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” That we share in the body and blood of Christ when we share in the Eucharist is a reality grounded in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus states that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” The senses do not perceive what the bread and wine truly are, Christ’s body and blood, but this spiritual food nourishes us now and points to the true feast in heaven.
For the bread of the Eucharist is also the bread of tomorrow. The eucharistic bread is given as a sign and true foretaste of the Messianic banquet to which our spiritual life points. This food that Jesus offers is “the living bread that came down from heaven.” Jesus contrasts this “bread that came down from heaven” with “that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” This eschatological dimension directs us to our true destiny, in which unity as the body of Christ, incorporated by and through the body of Christ can never be lost: our heavenly home. That which the prophets spoke of so long ago, of mountains flowing with wine and rich foods, and of which Jesus spoke, saying many will come to dine with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on that day—that is the spiritual food Jesus offers us now as a foretaste of heaven, the bread of tomorrow, forever nourished by the spiritual food that never ends.