Breast and bread


I was reading in John yesterday, and I came to one of my favorite verses in the book. It’s just after Jesus has fed the five thousand and then been tracked by some bread-groupies. When they find him, he gives a discourse on the physical metaphor they’d witnessed and tasted.

“I am the bread of life,” he said.

“Whaa?” they said (that’s a rough translation).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life,” said Jesus.

“Say whaaa?” they said (also roughly translated).

“I am the bread of life ,” he patiently continued. “Your fathers 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. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

When they seemed confused about this and whispered amongst themselves, he continued.

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”

“I’m sorry; we’re late to something,” they said (or something along those lines). After many of his disciples left, Jesus looked at the twelve.

“Do you want to go away as well?” he asked.

Simon Peter answered with the honest and plain truth.

“Lord,” he said, “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

I love this verse right here. It’s such a simple admission of helpless, hopeful decision-making. There’s nobody else. We need. You fill. We could leave, but where would we go?

“To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…”

 

Breast and bread

A few minutes after reading this passage, and while I was still writing this particular line down, I heard a cry from the bedroom.

Baby Agnes lifted her fat fingers up to me from her crib. Three teeth sprang into view as she saw me and sent dimples down into both of her cheeks and into a certain spot on her chin. In the back of her mouth, I could hear that guttural inhale of excitement, the one that’s usually followed by the exhale of laughter. I lifted her. She came to me with a stifled shriek, grabbing me around the middle with her entire body, clasping with her knees and heels.

Then I brought her back over to my rocking chair. She laughed when she saw me arranging layers and settling a nursing pillow under my elbow. As she settled in and let her body go perfectly slack against me, I thought about the nature of her love.

It is not an altruistic love. It is not self-giving. It is not conscious of itself at all. It’s only dimly conscious of being drawn to me and not wanting me out of her sight. When Agnes looks at me, it’s possible that she mostly sees me as a breast, a breast that is tall and strong and that smiles at her. Her love for me is made up mostly of needs, and my love for her is made up mostly of an impulse to fill needs. Perhaps it sounds a little wrong to call her thing “love” at all, especially if you’ve studied love in any of the letters of the New Testament.

And yet, I really do believe she loves me—the only kind of love she’s capable of.

And the day that I know for sure she loves me won’t be the day she looks at me and says—“No, Mommy. I don’t want to eat today. All I need is to sit on your lap and be with you. I want to be your friend, but I don’t want to constantly be taking like this.”

It would be false (as long as she is still an infant, at least): she still needs the breast.  It would be pretentious: she’s not able to love me as an equal. And it would be a misunderstanding of what I want our relationship to look like: my relationship to her is inextricably tied to the act of feeding.

I am Mommy, and I am breast. She knows me and wants me to be the one feeding her—has never accepted a bottle, in fact. So in that way, “Mommy” is the point for her. But at the same time, our relationship is defined by this act of need being met. So in that way, “breast” is the point for her.

Our savior is Jesus, and he is bread. He is the only one we want to be spiritually fed by. So in that way, “Jesus” is the point for us. But at the same time, our relationship with Jesus is defined by this act of need being met. So in that way, “bread” is also the point for us. We are being fed by him, and that is why he is our Savior.

It would not be an improvement on our relationship with Jesus if one day we said, “No, Jesus; that’s okay. I don’t need you that way anymore—I want to be your friend, but I don’t want it all to be based on this ‘feeding on your body’ thing. I want to love you altruistically, unselfishly. I don’t want to be constantly getting and getting and getting from you. I want you, not the bread.”

 

To know is to eat; to eat is to know

Now here is where the Agnes analogy breaks down. Because Agnes could feed at the breast, technically, without any interaction with the Mommy at all. She could be untouched by the one, while eating at the other. Just like five thousand people were able to eat physical bread from Jesus’ hand without having any knowledge of Jesus himself.

But the thing about eating the true bread of Jesus Christ is that, of course, the two things are logically and spiritually intertwined. Jesus, inviting us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, is saying that we have to know him. To know IS to eat. To eat IS to know. And whoever feeds on this flesh and drinks of this blood abides in Jesus, and also has Jesus abiding in him. This mewling infant of a person is somehow said to be a friend of God.

Whoever humbles himself like a child, after all, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Here, we have to admit simply, is our impulse to follow Christ around, to stick with him like my baby crawls around after me while I’m cleaning house. To whom else could we go? He has the words of eternal life.

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