Monday, May 2, 2011

Bread of the World

Praise for the Lord #79

Words: Reginald Heber, c. 1825
Music: John S. B. Hodges, 1868

Reginald Heber (1783-1826) was a poet of considerable talent from a young age; during his education at Oxford he wrote the poem "Palestine," which won the Newdigate Prize, and received a warm reception from Sir Walter Scott at a private reading in his rooms--not a small accomplishment for a 19-year-old. Upon finishing his studies in theology, Heber was appointed vicar of Hodnet, in Shropshire, in 1807, where he remained for sixteen years. It is believed that all of his hymn-writing occurred during this period, but as the Anglican church did not adopt congregational hymn-singing on a regular basis during his lifetime, he did not live to see the impact his work would have.(Julian, 503)

Though a few of his hymns were published in journals before his death, the world would come to know his works through a posthumous collection, Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year. Published in 1827, this was the culmination of his own work and his adaptation of the hymns of others in an effort to coordinate hymns, Scripture readings, and sermons. John Julian gives him high praise in this remark: "The greatest evidence of Heber's popularity as a hymn-writer, and his refined taste as a compiler, is found in the fact that the total contents of his MS. collection . . . are in common use in Great Britain and America at this time."(Julian, 503-504)

Though this is less true a century later, few hymns match the lasting popularity of "Holy, holy, holy!," and some of his others are still well-known, such as "The Son of God goes forth to war" and "From Greenland's icy mountains." This latter song revealed a deep interest in missionary work that grew through the quiet years Heber spent in Hodnet. In 1823 he was offered the bishopric of the Anglican See of Calcutta, where he served until his untimely death, three years later, at the age of 43.(Julian, 503)

"Bread of the world" appears in Heber's collection, not in connection with a specific day of the church year, but in a section of miscellaneous hymns for special occasions. It bears the heading, "Before the Sacrament."

Stanza 1:
Bread of the world, in mercy broken,
Wine of the soul, in mercy shed,
By whom the words of life were spoken,
And in whose death our sins are dead.

Heber seems to be referencing the following passage from John, in which Jesus uses imagery so visceral that it is still shocking even in our jaded age.
"I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh."

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever."(John 6:48-58)
"Bread and wine" is a common figure in the Old Testament for the daily necessities of food and drink. Ecclesiastes 9:7 uses this expression: "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart..." But it also frequently appeared in spiritual contexts--Melchizedek, the earliest priestly figure in the Bible, "brought out bread and wine" in his blessing of Abraham.(Genesis 14:18) The connection of "bread and wine" to "body and blood" draws closer in the initiation of the Passover, the "Feast of Unleavened Bread."(Exodus 12) The first occasion of this observance was accompanied by the blood of lambs painted on the doorposts and lintels as a mark of God's protection.

But Jesus' statement was still shocking. What could He mean by saying His body is food, and His blood is drink? What could He mean by promising, through them, the blessing of eternal life? And how on earth could He expect people to eat His flesh and drink His blood?

In explanation, He first compares Himself to the manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness. Jesus is superior to that bread, because the generation that received the manna in the wilderness died in disobedience. Though it was miraculous bread from heaven, it fed only the body; they were spiritually unchanged. But the bread of Jesus' body feeds the soul; its sacrifice on Calvary brings us eternal life.

Hebrews 9:13-14 makes a similar comparison regarding the blood of Christ:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Thus the effectiveness and superiority of the body and blood of Christ as spiritual food and drink is established; but how do we actually consume it? If it is spiritual, we must understand (as many of Christ's original hearers failed to do) that it is consumed spiritually. We first receive it when we receive Him into our hearts by obeying His gospel: "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit."(1Cr 12:13) Here the body and blood, food and drink, are in us and we in them, just as Jesus promised in John 15:4, "Abide in Me, and I in you." This figure is made visible through the holy symbols of the communion table: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?"(1 Corinthians 10:16)

But how do we continue to feast on this heavenly food and drink? If I may be permitted a sharp turn from the sublime to the mundane, we use a similar figure today when we say that sports fans "eat, drink, sleep, and breathe" the team that they follow. They are talking about the subject all the time; they speak of the atheletes as though they are personal acquaintances, and are endlessly speculating on their prospects. They are far better acquainted with the business dealings of the team than with the state of the national economy, and consider them more important.

They are excited days before a game and may be elated or despondent, depending on the outcome, for days afterward. The fan will dress in ceremonial garb celebrating the chosen team, even if watching the game at home alone. Do not attempt to contact these people while they are watching a game, unless it is about the game; and even then, wait until a commercial break. They are puzzled that others could be doing something else while the game is on, and that they are not aware of its importance. They support a massive industry of broadcast and print commentary on their favorite sport, which is followed with far greater consistency than are world events.

Now, our walk with Christ is a very different sort of thing--deeper and more meaningful, and therefore less outwardly showy. (I am not suggesting, for example, that we should wear "Team Jesus" baseball caps, wristbands, etc.) But the comparison is worth thinking about. Is Christ and His cause foremost in our minds? Do we find ourselves thinking about Him and talking about Him as a matter of habit? Do we clear our schedules in order to come worship Him? Do our friends know that there is no point in calling us or trying to make other plans with us on Sunday morning? Are we eager for any opportunity to read or hear more about Him? Do we rejoice at the progress of Christ's church, and weep at its losses?

Heber closes this stanza with a thoughtful contrast of life and death, both in the hands of Jesus. He spoke the "words of life," as Peter so wonderfully stated after many disciples had turned away: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."(John 6:68) These words, of course, are one way in which Jesus gives us spiritual life; for "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."(Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4)

Jesus is also the master over death (2 Timothy 1:10, Hebrews 2:14) and gives us victory over both spiritual and physical death, as is so beautifully illustrated in Romans chapter 6:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. . . . So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.(3-6, 11)
Stanza 2:
Look on the heart by sorrow broken,
Look on the tears by sinners shed,
And be Thy feast to us the token,
That by Thy grace our souls are fed.

After the thoughtful analysis of the elements of the Lord's Supper in stanza 1, Heber turns toward our personal relationship to this event in the form of a penitential appeal. The first two lines seem perhaps inspired by David's great psalms of penitence:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.(Psalm 51:17)

Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer.(Psalm 6:8-9)
When confronted with the holiness of Jesus' life and the perfect love shown in His death, how else can we respond? "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away;"(Isaiah 64:6) "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."(Romans 3:23)

But the body and blood of Christ remind us that our sinfulness is not the end of the story. Romans chapter 5 tells it simply enough:
But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.(v.20)

But God commends His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.(v.8-9)

For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.(v.6)

Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by Whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.(v.1-2)
We can never forget the tragedy of the price that was paid through this body and blood, but let us also rejoice, in deep, solemn, abiding joy, that what was death to Him is life to us.

About the music:

It was no accident that John Sebastian Bach Hodges (1830-1915) became a professional musician. Who would name a child that? Another musician, his father, Edward Hodges. The elder Hodges (1796-1867) was a prominent organist and church music composer in his native Bristol, and progressed so far in his studies that he received a doctorate in music from Cambridge. He later emigrated to Toronto, then to New York City, where he was the first organist of Trinity Church (he had the organ built to his specifications). He is perhaps most widely known, however, for his arrangement of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" which is set to the lyrics "Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee" in Praise for the Lord.("Edward Hodges")

His son, though burdened with the name "John Sebastian Bach," did not seem to resent the assumption that he would follow in his father's footsteps. Though he was ordained an Episcopal minister and spent the majority of his career as rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore, he made his mark in church music as well. He contributed this and a few other hymn tunes that passed into common use, including the once-popular Christmas carols, "Hark! What sounds are sweetly stealing?" and "Sing! Sing for Christmas!" But of more lasting influence was his editorship of the Book of Common Praise (Baltimore, 1868), one of several different works under that title that provided music to accompany the congregation's Book of Common Prayer.("J.S.B. Hodges")


Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Scribner, 1892.

"Edward Hodges." Cyberhymnal.

"John Sebastian Bach Hodges." Cyberhymnal.

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