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Although Jesus often used similes to describe the Kingdom of Heaven, he tended to use metaphors to talk about himself. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this or that,” Jesus said, “but let me tell you who I am.” When Jesus declared himself the bread of life in the sixth chapter of John, he prefigured his death, his willingness to be broken and poured out in eternal remembrance of God’s saving love. As God provided manna in the desert, so he continues to provide life for his children. But the metaphor of offering one’s flesh as bread is a mixed one. A human body, after all, does not resemble bread. We are made of meat! What’s more, although we all enjoy bread and could surely live off bread alone, we typically eat bread alongside other, more substantial fare.
If Jesus meant to give himself for us, why choose a metaphor that requires so much time and labor on our part to unpack? Even to get bread requires work: grain must be grown and harvested and pounded into meal. Then it must be mixed with other ingredients, worked over, shaped, and baked or cooked. Making bread tends to belong to the province of the kitchen, so typically, the task of making bread would fall to women. Would men understand bread in quite the same way?
For sheer impact, why didn’t Jesus extend the Lamb of God metaphor? Such meat was offered as a temple sacrifice and served as the centerpiece of the Passover meal. As a complete protein, meat satisfies and nourishes more deeply than grain (which is why at a restaurant the waiter asks “Would you like a dinner roll to go with your rack of lamb? ” but would never ask “Would you like some lamb to go with your bread?”)
As Jesus prepares for his death, he sends his disciples to prepare the Passover feast. Of course, bread was a significant part of the feast, too, but it is interesting to note that there is no mention of meat at the disciples’ feast that night, and perhaps the significance stems from more than literary license. The Gospels mention only a humble meal of bread and wine, only the food of peasants, the most basic of foods. Perhaps it is Christ’s way of saying, “It all comes down to this. This is my body, this is my blood. You will always have bread and wine. You will always have me.”
All cultures take local grain and fashion it into some kind of bread, and it becomes a large part of the staple diet. Meat may not always be available or permissible, but bread we always have with us. And so it is that a poor man’s son remembers his earthly roots, while reaching even farther back to his heavenly ones. So it is that Jesus embodies the elements of our life in Him. He was born Emmanuel and remains “God with us” in the breaking of the bread.