Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The word Bethlehem means “house of bread.”
After he was born, he was laid in a manger. A manger is a feeding trough.
This imagery of God providing bread for His people goes all the way back to the book of Genesis with the patriarch Joseph. Joseph was sold to the Gentiles by his brothers and thrown into a dungeon after being falsely accused. After he was released, he was made second in command of the Kingdom of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. God had worked through all the evil perpetrated against Joseph by his own brothers and by the Egyptians, not only to benefit them, but to benefit the entire world. (In a future article I will discuss in detail all of the striking ways in which Joseph prefigured Christ.)
God had told Joseph through the dreams of Pharaoh that there would be a severe famine in the world for seven years; this would, however, follow seven years of plenty. After he was put in charge of Egypt, he ordered that grain be stored up in the years of plenty in order to be used in the years of famine. Everything came to pass just as Joseph had prophesied, so when the seven years of famine came, there was enough grain to feed not only Egypt, but the entire world.
The story of Joseph in the Old Testament is a remarkable foreshadowing of what Jesus would accomplish. He, too was betrayed to the Gentiles by his Jewish brothers. He, too was falsely accused. And just like Joseph was restored from the dungeon prison and raised to the right hand of Pharaoh, Jesus was restored from the grave and raised to the right hand of God. From that position of authority, like Joseph, Jesus could feed the world.
But with what kind of food does Jesus feed the world? Joseph gave them grain for their physical sustenance, but Jesus has a different kind of food. In the Gospel of John, after feeding the 5000, Jesus said the following:
“Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
When the people inquired about the bread, Jesus said,
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and that bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Now, this was a pretty radical statement. He said that in order for people to be saved, they must eat his flesh. The Greek word for “eat” in this passage is phago, which simply means “to eat.” When the people started complaining about this, for it was a pretty radical and unusual thing to say, Jesus intensified his meaning:
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus intensified his meaning in two ways. First of all, “very truly” in the Greek is “Amen, amen.” This is a double “so be it.” This was used by Jesus in the Gospels when he wanted to emphasize the importance or seriousness of something.
Secondly, the Greek word for “eat” in the above sentence is trogo – different from the word phago in the previous excerpt. Trogo is more to the point. It means, to gnaw, munch, crunch, chew, or grind with the teeth. Just in case his hearers might mistake Jesus’s meaning as figurative, he used the word trogo so that there would be no misunderstanding.
So unlike Joseph who gave the people bread for life, Jesus is the bread of life. This was a point of separation for many of Jesus’s disciples. After he made clear that he was speaking literally, most of them left. Of course, the Church came to realize that Jesus did not mean to imply that we engage in cannibalism in order to be saved. It is through the miracle of transubstantiation that the elements of bread and wine become literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
The Church borrowed from Aristotle in order to explain how this could be. Aristotle talked about “substance” and “accidents.” The substance is the essence of something that makes a thing what it is. It is what makes a dog a dog. The accidents are the changeable elements of a thing – those things that change without altering the essence. For example, when a dog grows old and gets gray hair, it is still a dog.
With the eucharist, the accidents of the bread and wine stay the same while the substance changes.
We now come full circle to the Christmas story. It is no random event that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, and that he was laid in a feeding trough, for he came into the world in order to be the bread of the world. In our modern world beset by spiritual famine, the only answer that will bring true nourishment to our souls, true satisfaction and fulfilment, is the partaking of the body and blood of Jesus. Everything else, no matter how noble, only leads to more restlessness. The world keeps running from one thing to another to find the solace that can only be found in the true bread from heaven. This is the message of Christmas.
“As two pieces of wax fused together make one, so he who receives Holy Communion is so united with Christ that Christ is in him and he is in Christ.”
-St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 5th century
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God…they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the selfsame flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.”
-St. Ignatius of Antioch, 110 AD
What is your view of the Sacrament or practice of Communion? Please leave a comment below. Thank you!
Feingold, Lawrence, The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion, Emmaus Academic, Steubenville, Ohio, 2018
Lang, Bernhard, Joseph in Egypt, Yale University Press, New Heaven and London, 2009