In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!

. . . from the BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Bread of Life


And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live. ~ Deuteronomy 8:3
We're in the middle of a week that is sacred to billions of people around the world: Holy Week for Christians, and Passover for Jews. Of course, these two events are closely intertwined. At Passover Jews commemorate their deliverance by God from slavery in Egypt. During Holy Week Christians celebrate the deliverance of all men from bondage to sin, through Christ's Passion, death, and resurrection--which occurred in Jerusalem, during Passover.

On this Holy Thursday, when Christians commemorate the Last Supper of Christ and his disciples, it struck me what a central role bread plays in the observance of both Passover and the Last Supper.

The main symbol of the Passover holiday is matzo, or unleavened bread. The Torah contains a divine commandment to eat matzo on the first night of Passover and to eat only unleavened bread during the entire week of Passover. Jewish teaching is that this is because the Hebrews left Egypt with such haste that there was no time to allow baked bread to rise; thus, flat bread, or matzo, is a reminder of the rapid departure of the Exodus. Other scholars teach that in the time of the Exodus, matzo was commonly baked for the purpose of traveling because it preserved well and was light to carry (making it similar to hardtack), suggesting that matzo was baked intentionally for the long journey ahead.

The New Testament is rife with teaching that characterizes Jesus Christ as the "bread of life." The best example is the Gospel of John, Chapter 6. Here Christ himself declares:
For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. ~ John 6:33

I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. ~ John 6:35

I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. ~ John 6:48-51
Of course, the central moment of the Last Supper itself is Christ's breaking and offering of the bread:
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. ~ Luke 22:19 (see also Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; 1 Corinthians 11:24)
As we break bread together with our families this week, whether at Passover seder or Easter Sunday dinner, let us remember with reverence, gratitude, and joy how miraculously God sustains us!

As it turns out, what really got me thinking along these lines today wasn't Scripture or the holidays themselves, but--music! I was listening to radio over the Internet at work (through headphones, of course!), and heard what is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed: Panis Angelicus. The text forms part of the hymn Sacris Solemniis, written by Saint Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. The music was composed in 1872 by C├ęsar Franck. The text speaks simply and eloquently about the miracle of Christ as the Bread of Life offered us from Heaven, of which even the humblest may partake and be filled! Here is the Latin text, followed by two slightly different English translations (they tend to vary).
Panis Angelicus
Fit panis hominum.
Dat panis coelicus figuris terminum.
O res mirabilis,
Manducat Dominum.
Pauper, pauper, servus et humilis.

*****
O, gracious, heavenly bread
Whereby mankind is fed.
O, power of love divine, long promised by a sign.
O, deepest mystery,
One, with our Lord, to be.
Humble, lowly, to all men offered free.

*****
Thus Angels' Bread is made
the Bread of man today:
the Living Bread from heaven
with figures dost away:
O wondrous gift indeed! the poor and lowly may
upon their Lord and Master feed.
The ultimate experience of Panis Angelicus is through Cesar Frank's music. Here is one of the most moving (if not the most polished) renditions I've ever seen and heard, by Charlotte Church while she was yet in the innocent time of her life:



Additional marvelous performances have been rendered by tenor Andrea Bocelli and Chloe Agnew of the group Celtic Woman. For a full choir version, enjoy this one by the Ambrosian Singers.

God bless everyone this wonderful Passover and Holy Week!

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