"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

Food and Drink: A Reflection On The Feast Of The Baptism Of Our Lord

"The Baptism of Christ," by Domenikos Theotokopoulos aka El Greco (1541-1614), egg tempera-on-panel work from the second half of the 16th century. El Greco's signature in art is the longer human forms painted in vivid colors

he first point is the element of food as a great symbol of power during Jesus’s time. “The Jewish religious leaders control their food, tithe it, prepare it properly, prepare themselves by ritual washings to eat it properly, and share it with people like themselves. In brief, they control who eats with them and with whom they eat. If we accept the common scholarly model that Jesus lived in a peasant society, then it follows that the few people at the top of the social and political pyramid controlled not only taxes, but also food” (Robert J Karris, Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel, p. 100). John the Baptist also centered his teachings on food.

Food is so much more powerful when seen, according to the plan of God in saving and transforming the world. Food is like the principle of life because all the food that we eat give strength, health, and joy. Just look at the variety of festivities that many cultures around the world celebrate—almost all are centered on food. Food also is the creative principle because when God created everything He provided food out of living plants and animals. Creation is sustained and renewed through the food web.

There is no doubt then that it is through the food web that God would enter into His creation. The mystery of the Incarnation is also the greatest tool that God employed to save, to renew His entire creation and to be God-with-us—Emmanuel. “[T]he one whose body and spirit extend to the farthest corners of creation through grace, through life and through matter” (Teilhard de Chardin). From ecclesiastical Latin incarnat—‘made flesh,’ from the verb incarnare, from in—‘into’ and caro or carn—‘flesh,’ the mystery of the Incarnation is to make oneself edible or “eatable.” Jesus came down to become our food, our nourishment, our Bread of Life in Bethlehem—Arabic Bayt Laḥm (“House of Meat”), Hebrew Bet Leḥem (“House of Bread”). But to become food means also a certain death. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

Secondly, food is not only what we put in our stomach. We have expressions like food for thought or food for the soul. There is what we call emotional eating, which, by the way, could be seen as a negative coping mechanism—hence, it solidifies a connection between mind and gut. There is this apocryphal, but endearing story about eating Partridge when St Teresa and her group of sisters and priests came back home from one of their expeditions by donkey cart. During the Reform period, Teresa founded monasteries for men and convents for women. It was already late in the day, and everybody was tired, and one of the sisters came down to the convent kitchen at night to make a cup of tea. St Teresa was known for her “love” of Partridge. A fellow nun spotted her not just eating, but devouring a whole bird with great gusto. The nun was rather scandalized by this who probably thought that eating should be done very modestly. And she said, “Oh, Mother, excuse me, I didn’t realize you were eating and with such gusto.” And Teresa could tell that the nun had a judgment about her gastronomic ecstasy. Mother Superior slapped her hand down on the table and said, “When I fast I fast. When I eat Partridge, I eat Partridge!” In St Teresa’s case, we can “pray” and learn so much more through the gut. Jesus, for example, taught his followers about the relationship between praying and fasting while they were eating. When his disciples were unable to cast a devil from a suffering man, he told them the secret ingredient to obtaining a spiritual power by “prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:14-21). Jesus seems to be pointing to a deeper level of integration between the gut and the brain. For Jesus, one can “think,” “learn” and “pray” through the gut and perhaps only secondarily through the brain.

But there is the need to purify our “appetites” which are like our desires. My novice master Fr Ramon Bautista SJ kept hammering home the fact when we are in touch with our deepest desires, we will also find God’s deepest desire for us. When the two deepest desires meet we then start to fall silent to give space for the Spirit to lead us in such an interior journey sustained by solitude and prayer. This is what St Ignatius also calls the “open door.” The door is discovered by entering it rather than just talking about it. This door has been opened already even before we “knock” because both the knocking and opening happen at the meeting of our desire and God’s. But we have to discover and purify our deepest desire. Restraint, both internal and external, are needed in the purification process.

John the Baptist is a model of purified desire which was his purpose in life. This is reflected in his diet of locusts and wild honey (Mt 3:4) not only for the goal of living a mortified life but to practice his own teachings. He says in Luke’s account, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Lk 3:11). That John would be living on such as these rather than eating the usual and comfortable foods like bread and wine, is a clear expression in the Gospels of his role as a precursor or pointer to the coming of the promised Messiah. We talk about “finding God in all things” as no more than lip service, because all too often we just stop at the things. And then, we say we beg God to grant our desires, but, unawares, we are too attached to the impure desires. In both cases, we get the things, but remain stuck; in the end, we lose God in the process and we never get any closer to God. Because of this St Ignatius, in the Jesuit Constitutions, kept reminding about the need for “a thoroughly right and pure intention” through the art of discernment.

The third and final image to summarize the importance of food as nourishment and purification is the image of water. Let us never forget that water is the most important food which we must take in on a daily basis. We are told to drink eight glasses of pure water a day. Some are saying the next world war will be because of water, not because of the abundance that will kill, but its scarcity; as a matter of fact, the war has already begun. Water is essential and this is the main element in Baptism. When Jesus asked to be baptized, he did it to become truly like us in everything except sin. He did not need to be baptized because there is nothing to be purified. But water is not only for purification, but nourishment. Jesus, through baptism, gives himself to us not only to purify us but, more importantly, to feed us, to give us life through nourishment, healing, rejuvenation and refreshment. This to me is the full meaning of the Baptism of Jesus.

St Paul writes to the Roman Church, “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom 6:3-4). Water is not only about death to sin, but new life, rebirth. It is to receive Jesus as our living water and not to be thirsty again. Why is this so because the water has now turned into wine and we are not the same person after drinking. Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, born in 544 BC said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Heraclitus was more than 500 years ahead of his time when he said that; although, he may not have known the full depth of meaning behind his words. We are never the same person even if it is the same water. And here is the main thing which I always sermon about during baptismal rites. I tell the parents and godparents, that their child is reborn anew, it is the child’s second birthday, but he or she is no longer just any human being, the child is a prince or princess, God’s heir and our coheir. You cannot just do as you please to the child because God has created the child anew through the Holy Spirit. Like the Spirit that hovered above the waters in the creation account, God, through the ministers of baptism, seems to be telling again to the formless void “Do not harm this child! You may come no further! For this is my child forever.” Baptism is the sacrament of sonship and daughtership not just 50 percent or 95 percent, but the full birthright as children of God. That is why baptism is the sacrament of creation and it is administered once only in a person’s lifetime and never to be repeated because you can never undo what has been completely changed already. Amen. Fr JM Manzano SJ