Give us this day our daily bread
Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Number 5 of 8 commentaries on The Lord’s Prayer broadcast on Raido Liberty by Fr. Alexander Schmemann to listeners in the former Soviet Union. (Translated by Alexis Vinogradov)l
Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt 6:11). This is the fourth petition – the one concerning our daily bread. The word daily really means “substantive,” that which is essential for survival, which is why we need itas daily food. If the first three petitions related directly to God, if they expressed our desire that his name would be glorified, that his kingdom would come, that his will would be accomplished not only in heaven but on earth as well; then with this fourth petition we are, as it were, switching over to our own needs, we begin to pray for ourselves. The bread signifies here not only bread as such, and not even food in general, but absolutely everything necessary for life, everything which makes possible our existence.
In order to get to the heart of this petition, it is important to recall everything related to the symbol of food in the Bible, for only there does this petition cease to have a limited relation to the strictly physical side of man’s life and is disclosed in its fullness.
We find the meaning of food in the very first chapter of the Bible, in the account of the creation of man. Having created the world, God gives it as food for man, and this means first of all that man’s life depends on food, that is, on the world. Man lives by food, transforms food into his own life. This dependency of man on the external, on matter’ on the world is so self-evident, that Feuerbach, one of the founders of materialist philosophy, consigned man into the famous formula: “man is what he eats.” But the teaching and revelation of the Bible does not rest on this dependency. Man receives food, that is, life itself, from God. It is God’s gift to man and he lives not in order to eat and thereby maintain his physiological survival, but in order to develop in himself the image and likeness of God.
Thus, food itself became the gift of life as the knowledge of the freedom and the beauty of the spirit. Food is transformed into life, but food is revealed from the outset as the victory over this dependency on food alone, for in creating man God commands him to have dominion over the earth. Therefore, in receiving food from God as the gift of God, man is filled with divine life itself. This is why the biblical account of the fall of man is linked with food.
This is the famous story of the forbidden fruit, which man ate secretly apart. from God, in order to become like God. The meaning of this account is simple: man believed that from food alone, that by pure reliance on its consumption, he could receive that which is actually possible to receive only from God. By way of food he sought liberation from God, which only led him to slavery and dependence on food; man became a slave of the world. But this also means a slave of death, for the food which gives him his physical life cannot give him that freedom from the world and death, which can only come from God. Food, the symbol and source of life, became the symbol of death. For if a man does not eat he dies. But if he eats he still dies, for food itself is a communion with that which has died and therefore with death. And so, finally, salvation, and recreation and forgiveness, and resurrection itself are linked also in the Gospel with food.
When Christ was tempted in the wilderness by the devil and felt hunger, the devil suggested that he turn the stones into bread, but Christ refused saying: “Man does not live by bread alone” (Mt 4:4). He overcame and judged that very dependency of man on bread alone, on the physical life, which became the burden, in the biblical symbolism, of the first man. He freed himself from this dependency, and food became once more the gift of God, communion with the divine life, with freedom and eternity, and not slavery to the mortal world.
This is the profound meaning of that new divine food, which constitutes from the earliest days of Christianity the main joy, the chief mystery of the Church that Christians call the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.” The Eucharist, faith in participation in the new food, in the new and heavenly bread, fulfills the Christian revelation about food. And only in the light of this revelation, of the joy of this thanksgiving, can one adequately understand the full depth of this fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Give us, today, the food which is essential for us.
Naturally, in the first instance these are things basic to life: bread, food, air, all that which becomes our life. But this is not all. “(You) Give us”: this means that the ultimate source of all this for us is God himself, his love, his concern for us; in whatever form or from whomever we may receive the gift, all is from him. But this means that the first meaning and goal of these gifts is God himself.
We receive bread, we receive life, but in order that the purpose of this life may be revealed. And the purpose of this life lies in God, in knowledge of him, in love for him, in communion with him, in the joy of his eternity, and in that life which the Gospel calls “life in abundance” (Jn 10:10).
My Lord, how remote is this understanding from the philosophy of that insignificant and blind guide named Feuerbach. Of course, as he said, man is what he eats. But what he eats is the gift of God’s love, what he participates in is light and glory and joy, and living he lives by everything which God gives him.
“Give us this day … ” In your love, give us all this today, give us not simply to exist, but to truly love that full, meaningful, and profoundly divine and eternal life, for which you created us, which you gave us and which you always give us, and in which we come to know, love, and give thanks to you.