Con Pan y Vino

An old Spanish proverb says, “Con pan y vino se anda el camino.” Literally this phrase translates, “With bread and wine he walks the road.” There are those who will say that it means that everything seems better after a good meal. But on the various roads, trails, pathways, and tracks comprising the Camino de Santiago – the network of routes that lead pilgrims on foot, bicycle, and other means to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain – those pilgrims generally understand the proverb to refer specifically to the enterprise at hand: “with bread and wine one walks the Camino.” 

Spain is a funny place, and pilgrims on the Camino are a funny breed of people who do not keep usual Spanish hours because the rhythms of the walk demand an adherence to the more American proverb coined by Benjamin Franklin that you need to be early to bed and early to rise. On the Camino you eat your evening meal many hours earlier than most Spaniards, and most restaurants, bars, and cafes in the small towns through which you pass will serve what is called a “menu del peregrinos,” a pilgrims’ menu, for maybe nine or ten Euros- it’s a simple selection of offerings that is available at the unconscionably early hours that pilgrims eat their suppers – around 7 pm or so. Almost universally in Spain, these menus include a choice of a bottle of mineral water or a big glass (or sometimes an entire bottle) of wine. I cannot recall a time in Spain that I ever opted for the water.

Water, however, is also a crucial ingredient to walking the Camino, and another feature of the journey is that you find fountains all along the way from which flows potable water. Usually these feuntes are located in the middle of villages or towns, and they are essential to the thirsty pilgrim who needs to stay hydrated. The fountains are, in this way, literally a source of life, and you would think there might be some proverb about them, or about water flowing to help the pilgrim on her way. But I have never come across such a proverb in my travels in Spain. No, it’s bread and wine, bread and wine that you need to walk the road to Santiago: con pan y vino se anda el camino.

Traveling on foot connects you to the biblical world and to the biblical narrative, and we hear in the famous passage from Luke’s Gospel this morning of three travelers on foot on the road to Emmaus, two of whom are disciples of Jesus. The important part of the story, however, does not take place on the road, it takes place at a table in someone’s home, or in some place where food is served. To my mind it is inconceivable that there was not wine on the table. In fact, I would expect that the easy availability of wine is a more historically accurate connection between the Camino de Santiago and the ancient world than the ready availability of drinking water from fountains. The moment of truth in this story comes when the stranger who was walking with the two disciples of Jesus reveals his true identity when “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.”

An honest examination of this episode begs us to consider what it is truly meant to demonstrate. Most of the details of this story seem to convey the message that the risen Jesus is a mysterious figure, hard to recognize, reluctant to make himself known, and elusive once you are on to him. But, on the other hand, most of the details of the story provide the context for that one moment of discovery when Jesus takes the bread, blesses, and breaks it, and gives it to his followers. From opaque uncertainty and confusion comes great clarity in this simplest of acts, the breaking of bread.

A context of opaque uncertainty and confusion certainly prevails in many aspects of life these days, if you ask me, and certainly in the church. One of the strengths of the Episcopal Church is that we are able to admit this context, and we are able to embrace pilgrims of faith who experience opaque uncertainty and confusion in the world around us, and in our own lives. We see through a glass darkly.

We can assume that God knows how thoroughly affected we are by a context of opaque uncertainty and confusion. We can also assume that God knows that this condition and this context are not unique to our particular moment in history. And we can also assume that God knows that in such a context we have found him to be mysterious, hard to recognize, and elusive. Much of the biblical record attests to God’s deliberate intention to cultivate these characteristics.

Along comes Jesus – the mysterious, hard-to-recognize, and elusive Son of the mysterious, hard-to-recognize, and elusive Lord of the universe, who nevertheless walks beside his followers, who do not even know him when he is literally explaining to them who he is. Who knows how it makes Jesus feel to realize that now that he is risen from the dead he is obscured to his followers, like Mount Sinai wrapped in smoke to obscure the presence or God? Perhaps this is not a matter of choice for him, perhaps this is just how it must be, perhaps it is for our own good, as the ancient followers of Moses must have concluded that it was for their own good that they could not, should not, dare not approach the Presence of God behind the cloud on the mountain, or deign to behold him there. Some things lie beyond our ken. We don’t know why God is so often mysterious, hard-to-recognize, and elusive, and we probably never will.

But we know this: that when things must have been at their most opaque and confusing for the disciples of Jesus, when they couldn’t figure out what was going on, when they didn’t know if his resurrection was the stuff of rumor or redemption, when they couldn’t be certain yet that his shroud-wrapped body hadn’t simply been stolen from its tomb, when their emotions must have veered between wild hope that the best possible thing in the world had just happened and desperate fear that the worst possible events were now unfolding, just then, at a table, with nothing but a bit of bread (and, I am assuming, some wine) Jesus shows them the truth – that he is risen and alive, and among them!

Just so have his disciples gathered ever since through all manner of opaque uncertainty and confusion, when we cannot figure out what is going on, when we are not sure whether or not the resurrection is the stuff of rumor or redemption, when we feel uncertain about whether we can believe that his shroud-wrapped body hadn’t simply been taken from the tomb, when our emotions veer between wild hope that the best possible thing in the world has happened and desperate fear that the worst possible events are now unfolding… just so, con pan y vino se anda el camino.

The road to Emmaus leads us to one of the most perplexing and worrisome questions we face as believers: why is God so difficult to get to know? Why is God so mysterious, hard-to-recognize, and elusive? If God reveals himself to his people, why is he so ineffective at it? Why is God so hard to see, so hard to know, so hard to find?

A parish community like ours stands here on Locust Street to respond to those questions repeatedly as we repeat again and again that God does make himself known to us in this simplest of acts, the breaking of bread. 

And our motto might as well be, con pan y vino se anda el camino. For it is central to our mission to repeat over and over again in the midst of opaque uncertainty and confusion that are raised to ever more complicated and artful heights in society around us, that Christ makes himself known to anyone who cares to join him at the table where the bread of his Body is taken, blessed, broken, and given, and where his Blood is poured out to be shared for a bleeding, suffering, and dying world.

The bakery in Cea

The bakery in Cea

The little town of Cea in the Ourense district of the province of Galicia in Spain is famous for its bread, pan de Cea. When I was walking through Cea last summer, the Spaniards I was walking with insisted that we stop at a traditional bakery to buy a loaf and enjoy it with our supper, which we ate at a ridiculously early hour by Spanish standards, on a terrace outside the hostel where we were staying. There was no restaurant or café nearby, so we supplied our own wine.

I had been walking for thirty-seven days at that point, and with the same little group for at least a couple of weeks. In my photos I can see that there are five of us gathered around a table. I can see that there is a loaf of pan de Cea at the table that has been cut and shared. I can see that there is a bottle of wine on the table…

And I can also see that there is an additional seat at the table – a sixth chair, although there was no sixth person who ever appears in the photos, and I am quite sure that no one else joined us for supper that night.

Preparing for supper with bread and wine, and an extra chair...

Preparing for supper with bread and wine, and an extra chair...

Of course the chair was probably pulled over by one of us thinking that we needed it. But to see the bread and the wine there on the table, and to recall the fellowship, and even the scent of the recent rainfall that had sent us scurrying to take our drying clothes off the clothesline, I can’t help but wonder, looking at the scene now, whether that empty chair was there for a reason.

Was that empty chair there for the mysterious, hard-to-recognize, and elusive guest who is also the host at every table where his Name is honored? And was I even aware in the sharing of that bread and that wine that he was there among us, as I am now absolutely certain that he was?

Con pan y vino se anda el camino!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

30 April 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on April 30, 2017 .