By Stewart Clem
Twentieth century British author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and translated numerous works of literature, but he is most famous for his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with these works, whether you’ve read the books or watched the film adaptations. Of course, one thing we all know about film adaptations is that, for practical reasons, they simply can’t include every aspect of the book. One of the plot points that never made it into the movie script of The Lord of the Rings is a special kind of bread that sustained Frodo and Sam as they reached the end of their journey. This bread, called lembas, was given to them by elves, and Tolkien describes it this way:
The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet, this way bread of the Elves had potency that increased as travelers relied upon it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.
Readers who have been shaped by the Christian Scriptures will immediately notice that this special bread, this bread for the journey, sounds a lot like the Communion bread we receive in the Eucharist. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s also worth remembering that Tolkien always insisted that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. He didn’t like it when people tried to make everything in his books a symbol for something else. In fact, he once claimed that he cordially disliked allegory “in all its manifestations.” So it wouldn’t be quite right to say that the lembas bread is a “symbol” of Communion bread in the story.
Yet, on the other hand, I think we can also recognize that when an author writes a work of fiction, there are certain things that are going to shine through the text even if he doesn’t realize that they’re there. And one thing we know about Tolkien is that he loved the Eucharist. He once wrote a letter to his 21-year-old son, Michael, who was having relationship problems. Naturally, the subject of the letter was love, but this got Tolkien thinking about the kind of love that even transcends human relationships.
With these words, he reminded Michael of the great love that he could ever possess: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”
About 20 years later, Tolkien received another letter from Michael. Michael was feeling depressed and looking for consolation. He mentioned his “sagging faith” and began to doubt if God or the Christian faith was true. This was his father’s response: “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion… The Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise.”
For Tolkien, these weren’t just empty words. He followed his own advice. He attended daily Mass at a parish near his house, and, as we can tell from his letters, he did his best to instill in his children a love for the Eucharist. His oldest son, John, became a priest and was with his father at his deathbed. As John Tolkien administered Last Rites to his dying father, he gave him the viaticum, which is what we call Communion when it’s given to someone who is passing from this life to the next. Viaticum simply means “provision for a journey.” I can’t think of a more fitting end for someone who wrote about elvish “bread for the journey” and who was sustained by Holy Communion nearly every day of his life.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus refers to himself as “living bread” (John 6:51). “If any one eats of this bread,” Jesus declares, “he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This has a double meaning, of course: On the one hand, Jesus is explaining that, in order to be united with him, we must “eat his flesh” (as strange as that sounds). The way that Christians do this is by receiving Communion. We believe that, in receiving Communion, we receive the body and blood of Christ. Most Christians, I think (especially those who have grown up their whole lives in the Church) have become desensitized to just how bizarre this language sounds to outsiders. Any sane person, upon hearing this for the first time, would ask, “What do you mean, you eat the flesh of Jesus?”
It’s worth remembering that Christians in the first and second century were accused of cannibalism because of their claim that they ate the flesh and drank the blood of their deceased leader. But as strange as this concept may seem, here we have Jesus telling us that the bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh.
But there is a second meaning to Jesus’ cryptic saying about his flesh. Jesus is also alluding to the fact that he is going to be captured and killed. By prophesying that this is how the events are going to unfold, Jesus is explaining that his death is actually a sacrifice: “the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The point here is that he is not simply going to die; he is going to give away his life – his body – for the sake of the world. In doing so, he gives himself to us, as a source of life. Christ’s body—corpus Christi, as it’s rendered in Latin—is the bread of life. It is our nourishment.
Of course, when we say that Communion bread is nourishment, we don’t mean that it provides physical nourishment. But then what does it mean to say that this bread provides “spiritual nourishment”?
This is where we have to be careful. Some Christians mistakenly think that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are merely symbols of Christ’s body and blood—visual aids that help us remember Christ’s suffering and death. But as the great Southern novelist, Flannery O’Connor, once said, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” She understood that Jesus was serious when he said, “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (6:54-55).
Taking Jesus’ words seriously doesn’t mean that we have to fall into a crass ritualism either. Some Christians act as if their priest is a shaman who concocts a magic potion at the altar. They act as if the communion wafer is an amulet that drives away all spiritual ailments. In other words, communion is no longer attached to the spiritual reality of Christ’s body as a source of nourishment for us, but rather as a token that can be freely distributed the way a doctor might provide a free sample of Tylenol.
Thankfully, there’s a better way to think about the Eucharist. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (6:48). We have to understand that Jesus himself is the true bread. He is the source. He is the one who offers himself to us.
These words should be especially reassuring to us during this time when we’re unable to gather in person. We’re not able to come to the altar rail to receive communion. But I hope that two things are happening right now as you hear these words:
First, I hope that you feel a longing to receive the body and blood of Christ. There’s something painful about not being able to receive communion right now, but that’s how we should feel. God has ordained that we receive grace and spiritual nourishment when we gather in church and celebrate the Eucharist together. And I trust that it will be even more meaningful once we’re able to start doing this again.
But secondly, my hope is that this longing that we feel can be transformed, so that we can experience God’s grace, even now. The Church teaches something called “spiritual communion,” and it addresses our current situation in this pandemic. In the Book of Common Prayer, we find this explanation:
“If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the [priest] is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth” (457).
Our current situation is an “extreme circumstance” if there ever was one. This idea of spiritual communion isn’t some kind of legal loophole, but it’s rather a way of recognizing that God isn’t limited by the Coronavirus. God isn’t taking a vacation while the doors of St. Michael & St. George are closed. It reminds us that if there is a situation in which we can’t come to God, then God will always find a way to come to us.
And I know this is true, because I’ve seen the fruits of God’s grace in the Church of St. Michael & St. George. God is feeding us, and will continue to feed us, even as we long to gather together and come to the altar rail. This is the hope that sustains us—not only in this life, but beyond: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54).
The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.