By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 12, 2006

The photo comes from the BBC and shows a lass in Chitral, Pakistan, on the way back to the barn after some high-altitude harvesting. Studying the image for a few minutes and wondering what the yield of the wheat on her back might be, I got to thinking about the effort of plowing, sowing, reaping, threshing, winnowing and milling entailed in the task of scraping a meal out of the earth -- and its connection to our use of wheaten bread in the Eucharist. At every Mass we hear the priest pray

Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made ...

For most of us Web-rats, this means other hands, and by that fact we are separated from the huge majority of persons who have heard that prayer throughout the ages: folks for whom bread was not something you plucked off a supermarket shelf, but the outcome of exertions you could still feel in your shoulder muscles. The bread carried to the altar in the Offertory was, true, a symbol of divine grace aiding human effort, but it was more than a symbol -- both the effort and the grace were too obvious to be denied.

Take another glance at the girl, and think for a moment about the total food value (calories, protein, &c.) of the double-handful or so of grain yielded by the pair of modest sheaves she's hefting. I don't know what it is, but when it's measured against what the human body burns off in the process of getting it from the field to the table in the form of bread or porridge, it's going to be pretty close to a zero-sum effort. Our young harvester won't be getting fat on it. Here too the contrast with our own situation is stark. Not only are (relatively) few Westerners engaged in producing grain, but each worker vastly out-produces what he needs for his own sustenance. The disparity is not only economic, it's sacramental. There's a different spiritual relation between, on the one hand, a man and the bread that keeps him from starving, and between, on the other hand, a man and the bread that represents a guilty lapse from his Atkins diet. (To change the image somewhat, have you ever mentally congratulated yourself on a Davy-Crockett-Laura-Ingalls-Wilder rusticity -- not because you'd built a log cabin with a Bowie knife -- but because you purchased a loaf of unbleached multi-grain in preference to Wonder Bread?)

The prosperous Westerner, accustomed to over-abundant harvests, is tempted to believe that the curse God put on the soil at Genesis 3:17-19 ("cursed is the ground because of you ... thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you ... by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread") has been lifted in his case. If he thinks about the source of his bounty at all, the image of the unloading auger on a combine harvester pouring a couple bushels per second into a truck bed is likely to reinforce his sense of sublime detachment from the common lot of man. Thus when he hears the priest's address to God, "through your goodness we have these gifts to offer," he may find it somewhat precious or contrived. After all, we've got nature beat: we call, she delivers. He may even think well of himself as generous enough to include a mention of God in the credits.

Of course, if someone were to twist the energy spigot shut, we'd all be in the position of the Pakistani girl within six months, but the problem is more basic. The Offertory Prayer continues "... it will become for us the bread of life." When our every animal hunger is not only satisfied but glutted, our hunger for the Bread of Life is in jeopardy. Even if the glutton feels what he calls a "spiritual hollowness" within, he's likely to see it as a problem to be solved, like corporeal hunger, by human ingenuity.

Imagine two Catholic congregations gathered for the Eucharist: the first at a place and time of material profusion, the second at a place and time where factors such as locusts or rainfall will decide how many of the worshipers of mid-summer will still be alive the next spring. Which is more likely to focus on God rather than the assembly? Which is more likely to fast? Which is more likely, in receiving the Body of Christ, to give thanks in the conviction that it's more than a metaphor?

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