After the story in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which we read on the last Sunday in July, the Gospel lessons continue a discourse for some five Sundays in which Jesus calls himself “the Bread of life” in various connotations. As we are presently in the middle of Lectionary Year B of the three-year ABC cycle, this is how liturgists and musicians have coined the phrase “B is for Bread.”
Bread and water (or wine) are significant, life-giving symbols from the Old Testament, only to be picked up in the New Testament, specifically in the Gospels. These images culminate in the Eucharistic acts of Jesus at table with the apostles on Maundy Thursday evening.
John 6 seems to be the most thorough record of Jesus’ teachings about his divine identity by using these bread images: “I am the bread of life” (vs. 35), “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (vs. 41), “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (vs. 51), “My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed” (vs. 55), “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them” (vs. 56), “The one who eats this bread will live forever” (vs. 58).
Fortunately, in the Anglican tradition we have a wealth of Eucharistic texts for anthems and hymnody, from the ancient text “Father, we thank thee who has planted” (Greek, ca. 110) to “Humbly I adore thee” (St. Thomas Aquinas, 13th cent.) and to the plethora of Eucharistic hymns written in the late 20th century.
This Sunday (Aug. 16) we are using two contemporary hymn texts from our hymnal supplement Wonder, Love, and Praise, both set to traditional, familiar tunes. “All who hunger gather gladly” was written by Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993), a minister in the United Church of Canada whose hymn texts were shepherded and influenced by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter, the spiritualist and liturgist and pioneer of introducing the folk music style into the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition. Dunstan served as a minister, prison chaplain and liturgical resource editor. Sadly, she died with liver cancer, but left behind a thriving ministry that combines the needy and distraught with a love for liturgical worship.
Our closing hymn is one that is near and dear to my heart, as it is a text from one of the many published hymn and poetry collections of my liturgical mentor and thesis advisor at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Before being consecrated the Suffragan Bishop of Connecticut in 1987, and later serving as Bishop of the American Episcopal Convocation in Europe with the American Cathedral in Paris as the see city, Jeffrey Rowthorn (b. 1934) was professor and chapel minister of the Yale Divinity School and the Berkeley Divinity School, its Episcopal affiliate seminary.
This carefully constructed text sets up its format as a dialogue in each stanza between a statement (“Lord, you make the common holy”) and an actual quotation of Jesus (“This my body, this my blood”), each stanza finishing with the grand refrain, “With the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.” While this text is found in The Hymnal 1982 set to another tune with other optional tunes, this printing in Wonder, Love, and Praise to the tune Abbot’s Leigh is the “correct” tune, at least in Bishop Rowthorn’s mind; he grew up in Wales hearing this grand tune on weekly BBC Evensong broadcasts. As you sing these words, which build each time to the refrain, you will hear how the words fit Abbot’s Leigh like a glove.
Photo credit: “Pan asturiano” by Tamorlan – Photo taken by Tamorlan. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons