I’m going to try and do three things with you today. First, I will draw our attention to a distinction that Jesus makes between material and spiritual sustenance. Second, I will reflect on Beauty (note the capital “B”) as a manifestation of spiritual sustenance. Finally, I will invite us to consider how Jesus transforms the concept of Beauty into something that is universally accessible and triumphant.
First, let us consider the distinction between material and spiritual sustenance that Jesus acknowledges when he says, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” Here, we have “manna in the wilderness” on the one hand, which nourishes the Israelites materially in the wilderness. On the other hand, we have “the bread that comes down from heaven” or “the bread of life,” which pertains directly to our immortal souls. We might call “manna” material sustenance from heaven and the “bread of life” spiritual sustenance from heaven.
The prophet Elijah provides us with an example of this distinction. In our lesson today, Elijah lies down and asks to die. For those of you who know his story, it is not an easy one. Elijah defies a King, slaughters nine hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Asherah in a spectacularly brutal act of Divine retribution, and then he flees across a desert to hide from Queen Jezebel who hopes to kill him. Certainly, Elijah is materially famished after all that praying, killing, and running around, but listen closely to what he says when he asks to die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” It is essential for our purposes to note that Elijah does not ask to die because he is materially hungry. “It is enough,” he says, because he is too tired to keep living. He has lost his faith, just like his “ancestors” in the wilderness. Elijah’s exhaustion is fundamentally spiritual, and it has eclipsed his will to live.
Allow me to provide a parallel example that might be more relatable than Elijah’s story. Three years ago, I helped to coach the JV Football team at our school in Virginia, and our captain was a superstar kid who played cornerback. This boy rarely made mistakes; he came to practice early, left late, and worked harder than anyone else. In our final game against our big rival, he got beaten and gave up a touchdown. He limped off the field afterward, and he sat the next defensive series out because his shoulder was hurting. Our trainers were ministering to his shoulder, but another coach discerned that his primary injury was not physical. Sitting next to him, this coach put his arm around him and told him that every player makes mistakes and that the mark of great players is how they bounce back from their mistakes and get back in the game. With this word of encouragement, our captain went back into the game with renewed energy.
I offer you this story as an analogy to what Elijah may have been experiencing in the wilderness, and what I imagine many of us may have experienced in our own lives. I suspect that our captain’s shoulder actually did hurt, but it wasn’t his shoulder that kept him from playing. It was his embarrassment for making a mistake, his fear of failure, his disappointment and frustration that he got beaten after working harder than anyone. These are spiritual injuries; his shoulder was a secondary issue. Not unlike Elijah, our captain had finally said, “It is enough,” because he was too exhausted spiritually to keep playing through material discomfort.
The world is obsessed with material solutions. New diets, new workout plans, new “self-care” regimens, new mindfulness habits for greater efficiency, new possessions, and the list goes on and on…all of these things are material solutions, not unlike “the manna in the wilderness” that Israelites ate and then died. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, but they don’t give us what we really want or need. We might also say that these material remedies are akin to the trainers working our captain’s shoulder; they address a secondary issue and are therefore superficial. The primary issue, the hunger in our souls, is our desire for meaning, purpose and hope, our desperate need for a reason to keep living. This is what Elijah needed, and it is what the angel gave him when she said, “Get up, there is a journey you must make.” This is what our JV football captain needed, and it is what his coach gave him when he invited him to continue his journey on the field.
The bread of life is what connects us to our eternal purpose; it is what allows us to keep living.
Beauty, with a capital “B,” is a particular form of spiritual sustenance. It is a powerful manifestation of the bread of life, and it seems inescapable up here in the Adirondacks, which is why I think it is worthy of mention here. Earlier this week, I was frustrated about some minor thing, so I retreated to the hammock by the lake at the Rectory, and I dove into the science fiction novel I am reading, Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I always select science fiction when I am trying to escape. Only a few moments into reading, I was stopped cold by an observation from the protagonist: “Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.” I put the book on my chest to chew on this sentiment. Just then I looked up at the sky to see a ruby-throated hummingbird meditating only a few feet above me as the wind rustled the birch leaves around us.
It was Beautiful. Who knew that God would use Neal Stephenson and that little hummingbird as angels for me at the moment, messengers of Beauty that would nourish my soul with the bread of life when I was frustrated with some small thing. The Irish poet and clergyman, John O’Donohue, wrote a book titled, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty. He is worth quoting at length here:
The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere – in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion and in ourselves. No-one would desire not to be beautiful. When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are of beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul.
Beauty, in the sense that O’Donohue writes, is that which connects us to our eternal purpose. Beauty is what animates us to continue the journey of life because Beauty is what makes the journey worth doing. To return to our lesson from creation, this is why mathematicians and physicists so often refer to their word “beautiful.” The deep truths of the universe like the Fibonacci sequence reveal an underlying order that allows us to glimpse something of our connection to a greater purpose. The same golden ratio of phi that manifests in the milky way galaxy is exhibited in our DNA. Each of us holds an almost infinite number of galaxies within us. We are, in this sense, eternal, because we partake in the eternal purpose of God’s creation that is reflected throughout the cosmos.
Beauty is a means by which each of us might receive the bread of life. Every moment of the Beautiful is an invitation to feast on our connection to God’s purpose and order. The profound action of Jesus’ life is to make the Beautiful universally accessible to the world and ultimately triumphant over the grotesque. Jesus’ life is witness to the fact that Beauty is all around us. It is everywhere, he tells us, in the most basic things: in the water of baptism, in a mustard seed, in a leper, or a prostitute. The kingdom of heaven is already here, Jesus tells us, if only we look with eyes to see. Not only does Jesus demonstrate that Beauty is all around us, he takes what is grotesque and he subsumes it into the greater Beauty of his Life. Jesus receives death, and he transforms it to become the means of life. He receives suffering, and he transforms it to become a vehicle of Love. If Jesus allows us to witness the Beautiful in the crucifixion, then he is giving us permission to see Beauty in every thing.
This morning, materially speaking, we are invited to approach the altar, kneel down, and eat a cheap wafer. But Jesus has transformed that cheap wafer into something Beautiful. He has taken the most basic foodstuff on planet earth, bread, and transformed it to become a vehicle for his body, his substance, the essence of Divine Life. On the one hand, Holy Communion might seem ridiculous to those on the outside of it: a bunch of people kneeling down and professing to eat the flesh and blood of a Palestinian-Jew two thousand years dead. On the other hand, Holy Communion is Beautiful in the truest sense of that word. It is where the people of God glimpse something of the Eternal Beauty of Jesus in the simplest wafer of bread, filling our souls with hope and glory through a small piece of bread that has become a means of Life. Jesus tells us, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
All of us need food for our souls. All of us desire the bread of life. And it is right here. We might even say that He is right here. All around us, even in the simplest things. Nothing, in my view, could be more Beautiful than that. Amen.