Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Jesus: Lembas from Heaven

Give us this day our daily bread. That's our prayer this side of Eden. Give us food for the day. Food for the journey. And though we no longer deserve the abundance of that Garden, still the Lord provides more than we ask for and more than we need. Bread is for us just as it was for Katniss, terribly hard, painful, death work. Laboring for food that perishes to feed a body that will also perish. And yet the bread that causes sweat to bead on our foreheads and dirt to crust under our fingernails and thorns to prick us incessantly with Adam's curse - that bread is also our life. That's how we keep going on our journey, that's how we are sustained with a will to live and given strength to endure the road that goes ever on and on. That's how Adam and Eve were fed after their eviction. That's how Joseph was fed in a foreign land and how he fed others. That's how Moses and the elders were fed at the Mountain. That's how Israel was fed in haste. That's how David dared to eat the holy food in the holy place. That's how Elijah was fed in his desperation: "Arise, eat!' That's how the multitudes were fed as their Shepherd led them to still waters and green pastures. That's how the disciples were fed on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. That is how we are fed. Bread of curse becomes bread of life. Take, eat. Take, drink. Live. Be forgiven. And I will raise you up on the Last Day.

In reading the Gospel account of John 6 for this Sunday, I couldn't help but think of all the bread that has sustained the Lord's people in the Scriptures and how this is reflected even in literature. It was not a new thought. But one that bears more weight when looking at John 6 and Jesus' bread of life discourse. No doubt there are many uses of bread in good books, old and new. None perhaps more memorable (thanks to the help of Peter Jackson) than lembas in The Lord of the Rings.

Hobbits, men and elves needed to be fed too as they journeyed to the land of shadows. And along their way the Company was fed by lembas from Lorien. It is food of the elves. In a way, lembas is to Middle-Earth as manna was to the Israelites. So, what is it? Tolkien calls it waybread, "thin cakes made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream." It was sweeter than honey and one cake was said to be enough for a day's march.

It was a gift of the elves. "Eat a little at a time, and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails. The cakes will keep sweet for many days, if they are unbroken and left in their leaf-wrappings, as we have brought them. One will keep a traveller on his feet for a day of long labour, even if he be one of the tall Men of Minas Tirith" (LOTR, I, 360-361).

Bread is given. Gift-bread. Grace-bread. Sound familiar? It should In lembas we see a picture - and I think an intentional one - of the Eucharist, where Jesus gives us bread for the journey, food to strengthen our life and will, sustenance that will see us through to the end and beyond (if we are to take Revelation seriously). Jesus not only gives bread. He is bread. I AM the Bread of Life. Or, to translate it for Hobbits, I AM the Lembas of Life. I will support, strengthen and feed you when all else fails.

"The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." And just how does this life of God come to us? In water and words to be sure. But also in bread and wine. Lord, give us this bread always!

However, lest you think I'm cooking this up in some strange wizard's oven at Isengard, Tolkien himself saw religious connotations in the lembas. In a letter of June 1958, commenting on a then recent film adaptation, Tolkien writes about this elven food:

"In the book lembas has two functions. It is a 'machine; or device for making credible the long marches with little provision, in a world which I have said 'miles are miles'. But that is relatively unimportant. It also has much larger significance, of what might hesitatingly be called a 'religious' kind. This becomes later apparent, especially in the chapter 'Mount Doom' (Letters of Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 275).

The footnote is just as tasty: "The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have laid down to die...It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind."

And commenting in another letter on one of his critic's observations, Tolkien says that, "Another saw in waybread (lembas) = viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will and being more potent when fasting, a derivation of the Eucharist. (That is: fare greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the far lesser things of a fairy-story.) (Letters of Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 288).

We shouldn't be surprised to find glimpses of the Eucharist displayed as food for the journey in an epic tale such as this. Tolkien wasn't surprised. According to him, his Christian faith was evident to those who read the books aright. In the fairy stories of Tolkien (and many others) we see far greater things even as we read the adventures and tales of far lesser things (though not to demerit their importance). For we see in the lembas a picture of the true Lembas from heaven, Jesus. He is our food for the journey. His word sustains us. His Baptism gives us living water that slakes our thirst. His absolution fills our ears with forgiveness. And his body and blood feed us with true earthly and heavenly food. Here in the Supper, the bread of the curse becomes the bread of life. Jesus feeds us on earth as it is in heaven. This is sacred eating. And it even hallows our daily bread in a sacramental way. Jesus feeds us in both body and soul at his table and ours.

The wicked will not delight in this gift or in the spread of fine dining. They cannot tolerate this holy food. Like Gollum, they choke on its divine goodness and favor. Lembas  is poison to the wicked. But not so the righteous. They rejoice in this Bread of Life. The Bread of Heaven is a delight and the Baptized beg their Lord for scraps from his table as he opens our mouths wide to fill them. For he fills the hungry with good things.
And so we journey on, knowing that there will come a Day when we will dine in even greater abundance at the feast of the Lamb in his kingdom which has no end. We will arise with Elijah, dine with Moses and the prophets, dance with David, be clothed in the Lamb's light with Adam and Eve and all the saints clad in white and we will sit beside the still waters and never hunger again. Lord, give us this bread always. Give us this day our daily Jesus. For whoever eats this bread will live forever. The table is set and all is ready. Come and get it!

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