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Our Father: Give us this day our daily bread

Wednesday, October 29, 2014
The eyes of all creatures look to you
and you give them their food in due time (Ps. 145(144):15)

This verse from the Psalms is taken up in the monastic Grace before meals. We ask God to bless our food, trusting that he is the source of all good things who will satisfy our daily needs. We are bodily creatures, not angels. So, in the Lord's Prayer, having asked that our wills and minds be turned to the Lord, we ask him to attend to our bodily needs too: "Give us this day our daily bread".

In Jesus's context, as in much of the world today, bread is the staple food. In the Old Testament, bread is often interchangeable with “life” itself. In Psalm 103(104), we sing God's praises for his providential care of all creatures, giving them food, drink and shelter. Human beings are part of this ecosystem and so God provides “bread to strengthen man’s heart” (v. 15). This Biblical notion of "bread" covers all our daily needs, as St Augustine notes: “we ask for a sufficiency of all things necessary under the one name of bread” (Ep. 130:11).

'Prayer before meals', Manansala

And yet – “man does not live by bread alone”! Jesus thus rebukes the devil in the desert, because a focus on material needs can distract us from the priorities of our spiritual life (Mt 4:4, Lk 4:4, quoting Dt 8:3). After giving us the Lord's Prayer, Jesus goes on to say (Mt 6:25): "do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" Food is there to serve our higher goal of becoming God's children; we should not seek to curry favour with God just to receive material rewards. As St Maximus the Confessor said, we should eat to live, not live to eat! Life means so much more than natural nourishment. “For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

But what about all the starving people in the world? Should they be satisfied with purely spiritual goals? Of course not: ordinary bread is not to be neglected! The obligation to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness", does not mean God wants us to ignore material needs; instead he tells us to seek his kingdom in order that "these things [bread, etc.] shall be yours as well" (Mt 6:32-3). The more we focus our goals on God's righteousness and justice, the better we understand the urgency of the task to create a fairer world. Nearly 1,000 million people go hungry every night, and yet there is more than enough food in the world, but it is unfairly distributed. Inequality builds up when we selfishly build structures to guarantee our future security, not noticing how this damages other people around us – as when people “panic-buy” during a shortage, meaning that those who really need the goods are left without (cf. the parable of the Rich Fool, Lk 12:16-21). God has not abandoned the starving; he is very close to them. But he needs us to act in truth and righteousness so that justice may flourish on earth.

Finally, there is an important double-meaning in the word "daily" in "our daily bread". The Greek term, epiousios, is totally unique in the Bible and Classical Greek literature, so Origen was probably right that the Evangelists coined it (leaving the original Aramaic term a mystery). It can mean "sufficient for the day" (either today or tomorrow), hence "daily" or "needful". But St Jerome was equally justified in translating it supersubstantialis – "more than substantial" – which would later occur even in the English Douai-Rheims translation as "supersubstantial". The Christian tradition, especially in the West, has long seen a connection between the daily need for ordinary bread and the ultimate need to receive the "living bread" that Jesus promised us would be his very own body. That is why the Council of Trent called the Eucharist by this Biblical term, "supersubstantial" (Session 13, Ch. 8). Only Jesus himself is the "living bread which came down from heaven", which a person may eat and live forever (Jn 6:51). The natural substance of our being is transformed by the grace-filled "supersubstance" of the "living bread" – the Body of Christ – which we receive in the Eucharist. That is why all people may call on God for their food, but only Christians may pray for their "daily bread" in precisely the way that Jesus taught us.

Velasco, 'Hapag ng Pag-asa' (Table of Hope)


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