For the Benefit of Our Souls

From “Bread from Heaven,” The Pastoral Sermons, 335-337 (1960).

It is a curious point about our Lord’s teaching, or about that part of it at any rate which has been preserved for us by Saint John, that he is always treating the things of earth, the material things of sense which are familiar to us, as unreal, as mere shadows and appearances, while the true realities, of which these earthly things are but copies, are in heaven. It is our habit to think the other way; to assume that our own flesh and blood, our food and drink and all the comforts we enjoy, are solid realities; heaven is something distant and shadowy — we believe that we shall be happy if we attain to it, but we cannot imagine how, because it all seems so remote from this world of our experience. …

And so it is with this great chapter of Saint John, the 6th chapter, in which after the miracle of the five thousand, our Lord talks to his disciples about the manner which was sent to the Israelites in the wilderness. “Thou didst give them bread from heaven,” the Psalmist wrote, thinking of that wonderful morning in the desert when the hosts of Israel awoke from sleep to find the earth around them white, as with dew, with the strange food that was to be the strengthening of their pilgrimage. But that wasn’t really bread from heaven, our Lord says; not the true bread from heaven. And even your experience just now, he implies, when the five loaves were miraculously multiplied so as to satisfy five thousand hungry men — that was not real bread I gave you, not the true bread. I am the bread of life. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. My flesh is real meat; my blood is really drink. All the most palatable food which can tempt your earthly appetites is only a sham, a shadow, a copy of the true bread, mysteriously to be communicated to my faithful followers, which is myself. And once again, not till we reach heaven and understand there what it was that the sacrament of Holy Eucharist has been doing for us all the time, building up our spiritual strength and satisfying our spiritual needs, shall we begin to understand that ordinary process, so familiar in common life, by which the foods food we eat builds up and strengthens our material bodies.

Let me put it this way so as to make my point clear. We think of God, don’t we, as first of all designing bread for our use, and then when he came to earth, instituting the Blessed Sacrament under the form of bread so as to remind us of our earthly food? But that wasn’t really how it happened. Before he made the world, almighty God for saw the need for the Incarnation, and decreed the institution of the Holy Eucharist for the benefit of our souls. And he gave us bread, the common bread we eat, to prepare the way for the Holy Eucharist, to be like the Holy Eucharist, to remind us of the Holy Eucharist when it came. Whenever we eat bread, if we really want to see things as they are, we ought to be reminded of the Blessed Sacrament.

Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was an English Roman Catholic priest, theologian, and fiction writer, one of the most influential figures in mid-twentieth century English Catholicism. Originally an Anglican priest, he was the Roman Catholic chaplain at Oxford for many years, and became a well-known apologist, preacher, and writer of detective fiction. This sermon was published in a posthumous collection.


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