I hope it is not simply my jaded desires, but food seems to be very much on the mind of so many people these days. Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc., documentaries that deal with food, health and the commercial food industry are being released and discussed. Michael Pollan, who has made a name as a writer about food, has written several books about food and the food industry in America, and last week his was the cover article in The New York Times Magazine, discussing the “foodie” culture in this country. “How is it,” Pollan was asking, “that Americans are obsessed with food, with cooking techniques, with culinary vacations and schools, with television programs about cooks and cooking, with the Food Network, and yet we cook less and less at home?”
Nor is Pollan the only person who is asking questions about food and diet. As we debate and begin to get closer to the political and rhetorical discussions which will inevitable occur around the process of attempting to reform health care in this country, food and diet plays an important part. We live in the country in the world with access to far more food than we could ever need, and one can tell by our waistlines, our diabetes rates, our incidence of heart disease. Yet despite our dietary wealth, the hungry throng our streets; our consumption has ramifications elsewhere in our society and the world.
Food is also an ecological issue, and I was ever so thrilled yesterday to hear on the radio that someone has coined the term “cookprint,” (in the same vein as “carbon footprint”) as a way of measuring the ecological ramifications of our cooking and eating habits.
As a culture we are only starting to awaken to the ecological ramifications of food, as we eye our peanut butter for salmonella and our beef for mad cow disease, it is clear that the economies of scale in food production are a two-edged sword, increasing our production, but often decreasing our health.
There are those who take these issues with a deadly seriousness. Those adherents of the faith known as “organic and local,” who worship at the altars of food co-ops and spurn those dens of iniquity, fast-food chains.
And, as if food wasn’t complicated enough, it is clear that food has a deep symbolic and aesthetic hold for most of us. No one can doubt that, picking up an issue of Gourmet magazine, or Food & Wine, and reading the almost literary lauding of food, or the ways that food can be an indicator of our class or our wealth or the ways that individuals can have very strange relationships indeed with food.
When I was in high school, I went with my father to the hospital to visit a friend of mine, and the child of a member of the parish, who had been hospitalized with anorexia nervosa. She was a few years older than me, and yet she weighed ninety pounds. Her skin was yellow as she flirted with jaundice.
I realized, as I spoke with her, that her life had a hole, an emptiness at its center – she was a living walking ball of hunger and desire; I realized that the cold hunger at her core was not about food, or health, or ecology. It was about control, longing and desire.
Here was my friend, living a life of happiness, in a wealthy upper middle-class, white suburban family, with a vast gaping, bottomless hole in the center of her life.
So food, for us, is a complex thing, and we as a culture have a complex relationship with it. We adore food, and hate it sometimes; there is, most certainly, a great deal of emotion connected to food for us. I wonder, as I listen to the focus, the obsession, the mania about food, and where it comes from, and who gets it, if all that energy and focus does really mean that we as a culture, as a society, are desperately, desperately hungry and full of longing.
I wonder if the obsession about food in our culture isn't really the symptom of a rather old story, that “God-shaped hole” which St. Augustine was trying to describe in The Confessions, in that oft quoted phrase “You made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.”
Which would make what Jesus is saying in the Gospel for this morning rather simple.
“I am the bread of life,” says Jesus, “I come to fill the hunger within you. I am what you are longing for, in whatever way you long.” It is little wonder that the crowd starts to wonder and people start to complain. We would do the same. Who is this teacher, to make claims of that order? Hunger, thirst, longing, desire; those are universal feelings that everyone experiences, that form the bedrock of our human experience. Every infant knows hunger and longing, every adult fears feeling them. And who doesn’t get a little tense, when some strange teacher suggests to us that there is emptiness at the center of us.
Indeed, so much of our culture seems to be an attempt to preserve the myth that the emptiness is not just outside our doors, waiting to spring on us.
Longing, desire, thirst are universal, and what Jesus is saying when he says “I am the bread of life,” or “I am the vine, you are the branches,” or when he speaks of “living waters” is a simple hammering home of the point that nothing, ultimately, will take away that longing and thirst, that hunger at the center of our beings, except the One who created it in our hearts.
Which leaves us in rather an unusual place. We need food, we are built to long for many things in life, but the longing that we have for those necessities, what they remind us of are the longing that we have for the Bread from Heaven, for that food which will sate us forever and ever.
Which some people have take to mean that the Christian faith is about a great deal of self-denial and self-punishment. But notice that Jesus doesn't really seem to be into a great deal of self-denial. So many of the stories about Jesus are him healing, or feeding thousands, or sitting down to a meal with his friends. So many of the images of the Scriptures are images about food and feasting, about the dinner which will ring down the curtain on this life. So many of the stories of Jesus are stories about Jesus interacting with the physical, not as religious prude, or as aesthete, but as someone who sees the good things in life, food, wine, friendship, and silence, and loves them for what they are. Not as symbols, not as something to be hated or feared, or loved overly much, but as manna in the wilderness, bread for the journey, an aperitif to wet the appetites, for that feast and supper which is the true ending of our hungers, our longings and desires: Jesus, Lamb of God, the bread of life.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
9 August 2009
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia