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Our Supersubstantial Bread, The Eucharist

June 15, AD2016 3 Comments


A few weeks ago, we celebrated the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, calling to mind the mystery of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This wondrous gift allows us to experience the most intimate encounter with Christ this side of heaven. The Church has always taught the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith.

In Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul VI writes:

The Mystery of Faith, that is, the ineffable gift of the Eucharist that the Catholic Church received from Christ, her Spouse, as a pledge of His immense love, is something that she has always devoutly guarded as her most precious treasure…For if the sacred liturgy holds first place in the life of the Church, then the Eucharistic Mystery stands at the heart and center of the liturgy, since it is the font of life that cleanses us and strengthens us to live not for ourselves but for God and to be united to each other by the closest ties of love (1-2).

Throughout the New Testament, we are given revelations about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist but what some may not realize, hidden in the very words of the Lord’s Prayer (The Our Father), God points us to this reality as well.

Our Daily Bread

Jesus taught us to pray using the Lord’s Prayer, and, though it can appear to be simple at first glance, through meditation one will discover great power and beauty in each of the words. Within this prayer are seven petitions – three related to God and His glory and four are more specific to ourselves. The fourth petition is where we find the gem related to the Eucharist. “Give us this day our daily bread” – though seemingly straightforward in the English, this phrase has left scholars baffled over the centuries.

On the one hand, we are praying literally for physical nourishment with the simplicity of asking for bread putting our many other earthly needs and wants we in their proper perspective. But our hunger is not merely physical and our supplication is also for strength in our spiritual life. This petition reminds us to put our trust in God without reservation knowing He will provide for us as only He knows what is best for us, especially for our eternal life. Finally, we note the petition is not merely personal but a communal request. In solidarity, we ask God for sustenance, both for the body as well as the soul, not only for ourselves but also for others.

But concealed within these words is an even deeper significance. If we look to the Greek, the word used in Scripture for “daily” is epiousios. Translation of this word is challenging because outside of the Bible there are no Greek resources to aide in understanding its meaning – it is not found in Greek literature, personal documents, business records or other writings. The only known non-biblical use of the word is a fifth-century papyrus but this source does not provide any context to guide interpretation of the term. In the early Church, even the Greek Fathers were confounded and did not know the exact meaning. In the third century, the Biblical scholar Origen speculated that the Gospel writers coined the term to try to more accurately relay a word Jesus had used in Aramaic. But as we examine the writings of the early Church Fathers, the widespread opinion on this Greek puzzle is very evident: not only does this phrase petition God for physical nourishment, this request is pointing to the Eucharist.

An Extraordinary Word

One can begin to appreciate the uniqueness of this Greek word by examining the Latin Vulgate Bible, a translation from the Greek New Testament into Latin by St. Jerome around 400 AD. Jerome takes the Greek arton epiousion seen in Luke 11:3 and Matthew 6:11 and translates this phrase two different ways to try to capture the essence of this perplexing term. In the Gospel of Luke Jerome uses the Latin panis quotidianum, which means “daily bread” and in Matthew uses the Latin panis supersubstantialem, meaning “supersubstantial bread”. Jerome suggests this bread, like the adjective used to describe it, is extraordinary – it is not only bread we are to request daily but also supernatural. As with Jerome, most of the Church Fathers saw in this term these dual meanings.

The Church Fathers on This Unique Bread

In the fourth century, St. Ambrose specifically addresses this unique phrase of the Our Father in a lecture to catechumens. He explains it is significant the words arton epiousion are proclaimed in Mass following the consecration of bread and wine as the prayer highlights the reality being witnessed – the bread is no longer common bread but the supersubstantial bread of life sustaining our soul (De Sacramentis, 5, 4, 24).

In his Catechetical Lectures in 350 AD, during a discussion on this particular petition of the Our Father, Cyril of Jerusalem explained we pray each day for this bread though it is far from common bread. Rather we are asking for supersubstantial bread made holy to benefit both our body and soul (23,15).

Cyprian of Carthage in 251 AD also commented on this unique phrase in his Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer:

This may be understood both spiritually and literally, because either way of understanding it is rich in divine usefulness to our salvation…And we ask that this bread should be given to us daily that we who are in Christ, and daily receive the Eucharist for the food of salvation, may not, by the interposition of some heinous sin, by being prevented…from partaking of the heavenly bread, be separated from Christ’s body…And therefore we ask that our bread–that is, Christ–may be given to us daily, that we who abide and live in Christ may not depart from His sanctification and body (Treatise 4, 18).

Beyond the Physical?

The two principal interpretations based on etymology recognized today are “what is necessary for existence” or “bread for the future”. I have heard protests against the idea this word epiousios is referring to Eucharistic bread. Some opponents claim this word alludes to our physical nourishment without spiritual connotations. However, our spiritual nourishment is infinitely more important for our existence than our physical needs. And asking God for bread for the future contradicts the exhortation from Jesus to not be concerned about what we will eat tomorrow (Matthew 6:34). If we translate this term as bread for tomorrow, then it points to a future time with an eschatological connotation in Pope Benedict XVIs Jesus of Nazareth (p. 182-188). This future time is not the tomorrow of time but that which is transcendent. Our request is for the true manna of God, the food of the eternal wedding banquet. Pope Benedict explains it is in this way we can understand one of the meanings given to epiousios by St. Jerome as this is truly supersubstantial bread leading us to eternal life. 

The Eucharist: Our Supersubstantial Bread

Another claim agrees epiousios means “supernatural” bread (breaking the word down into “epi” meaning “above” and “ousios” meaning “nature/substance”) but holds this as being a spiritual reception of Jesus by hearing and reading the Word of God. While true, based on the sacred teachings handed down from Christ through His Apostles the Church has always taught Jesus also offers us another and more astounding way to be intimately united to Him.

In John 6, Jesus tells us He is the bread of life come down from heaven (John 6:41) – the new manna. He emphatically teaches we are to eat the bread which is His flesh – the same flesh He will offer for the world on the cross (6:50-51). But, unlike the Old Testament manna where men ate the bread but still died, eating of the new covenant manna will bring one to eternal life. And John the Apostle, being an eye witness, uses specific Greek words to demonstrate Jesus’ command to eat His flesh in the form of bread is more than symbolic. Initially using the Greek word phago as the verb ‘to eat’ His flesh (6:23-53), John changes this verb to trogo after the disciples express their horror by this charge. In doing this, John gives Jesus’ words a more literal and emphatic meaning: we are commanded to gnaw or chew His flesh as in meat (6:54-58). Astonishingly, after this radical mandate to literally eat His flesh, many of the disciples walk away, hearing Jesus but not understanding how this is to be accomplished, and Jesus does not stop them (6:66). The Apostles, on the other hand, confounded but faithful, remain with Christ, and, one year later, Jesus reveals how to fulfill His command at the Last Supper: they are to consume the consecrated bread and wine miraculously transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:26-30; Luke 22:14-20). In light of the proclamation Jesus is the new bread from heaven and the manna of the New Covenant we are commanded to eat in order to inherit eternal life, we can recognize along with many Church Fathers arton epiousion is pointing us directly to the Eucharist – the supernatural bread necessary for our earthly journey to the Promised Land.

Our Wonder Bread

Each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, let us not forget this wondrous epiousion bread should be received “daily” either physically at Mass or through a spiritual communion. It is also most certainly the “bread for tomorrow” as, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, it is the “medicine of immortality” (Letter to the Ephesians, 20, AD 110) leading us to everlasting life. And it is unquestionably “supersubstantial bread” because, as St. Paul tells us, this “bread which we break” is “a koinonia [communion] in the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16) because in consuming this bread we receive Christ Himself – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Through the Eucharist, we are united to Him in the most intimate way possible this side of heaven. Finally, we are to remember “as often as you eat this bread and drink the chalice, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26) because each time we receive the Eucharist, it is a foretaste of the glorious union we hope to one day have with Christ our Bridegroom.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Allison Tobola Low is a lifelong Catholic, passionate for sharing Christ and the Catholic faith with others. She works full time as a physician in Tyler, Texas, and also received a Master's degree in Theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. Allison finds time to teach and share the Catholic faith every opportunity she can find, including being a catechist for Adult Faith Formation and RCIA at her local parish. Allison enjoys giving talks in parishes on a variety of faith-related topics and is also a regional leader for St. Paul Street Evangelization. Her website is where you can find short simple Catholic videos she creates (that are especially for children/young adults).

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