Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Sane people never ask, “Did Michaelangelo cause the statue of David, or was it his chisel? Did Shakespeare cause Hamlet, or was it his pen? Choose!”
But for some reason, when the subject turns to evolution, many fundamentalists, both atheist and Christian, completely forget that a thing can have primary and secondary causes. Instead, they start by demanding that we choose between God or Nature, one or the other, as the sole cause of life on earth. The answer, from a Catholic perspective, is, “Why not both? God made me and used secondary causes called ‘my ancestors’ to do it. So why couldn’t he have used a massive artillery of secondary causes stretching back 13 billion years to do it?” Secondary causes do God’s will all the time. Pigs serve God according to their piggy nature, rooting around in the mud and having a swine old time of it making new piglets. Dogs serve God according to their doggy nature, eating with gusto, adoring their master, sniffing the daylights out of everything in scent, and causing puppies. Stars serve God’s purposes according to their starry nature by burning brightly and, now and then, exploding and making heavier elements such as carbon, useful for building things like pigs and dogs and you and me.

Of course, when it comes to those secondary causes called “human persons,” a new dimension enters in: dignity and free will, since God made these particular causes to be rational animals in His own image and likeness. Treatment perfectly appropriate for pigs and dogs is inappropriate for men and women, which is why the former do not appreciate being called swine and the latter dislike being called bitches. We are human beings, not beasts, and entitled to being treated as such. Now because of our unique status in the created order, we have the duty and privilege of doing something no other animal can do: We can ask God for things. We can even ask for God to do things, often quite remarkable things. That’s what Pascal is getting at when he tells us that “God instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” Strictly speaking, all creatures share that dignity, but our causality is unique. Pigs cause more pigs, and dogs more dogs. Both can cause stains on the carpet if you keep them in the house. But man alone can cause not merely natural events but even supernatural ones to happen, because he can ask God to move His hand and perform mighty works.
“Give us this day our daily bread” is the clause in the “Our Father” where Jesus sums up the paradox of our position before God as we enter into petitionary prayer. There are several things to note about it, the first being, once again, the marvel that it exists at all. Christians may not see this as clearly as non-Christians do, so let a former non-Christian point out what they take for granted. Growing up, I was not baptized and never went to church. I had a curious scruple against petitionary prayer, not because I was an atheist (not enough faith for that) but because as a pagan with a cloudy reverence for the Unknown God, I considered it the height of both arrogance and of a sort of welfare mentality. Why, I thought, should God bother Himself playing waiter and bellhop to insignificant specks on the Pale Blue Dot who were constantly looking for handouts? He’s got billions of galaxies to juggle. So, I thought, deal with it yourself and don’t pester the Almighty with your stupid requests. This rugged sort of Libertarian theology, of course, eventually fell on hard times as I discovered things like, “I am a creature who could not so much as exist without God’s actively willing it from nanosecond to nanosecond,” and, more embarrassing still, “I am a wretched sinner who needs God’s help, not only for my daily necessities, but still more because without His help I would be a monster, not a Jeffersonian paragon of the Free and Good Man at Home in Nature.” So I discovered that petitionary prayer, while certainly not the highest form of prayer, is still good and not merely permitted, but commanded by our Lord. That such an infinite God could hear, much less lovingly answer, the prayers of we swarming infusoria under the microscope ought to astonish us.
Another minor thing I noticed was simply this: Jesus’ petitionary prayers have none of the sort of courtly embroidery that surrounds what we normally think of as “religious language.” There is a matter-of-fact brevity to the Lord’s Prayer that could almost be taken as rudeness if we didn’t know this was the Son of God teaching us. Picture yourself at dinner with a family where the teens look the adult in the eye and say, “Give me the bread,” without so much as a “please.” Yet this is the norm set out for us in the Lord’s Prayer. No “please.” No “O Great and Gracious God, if it is possible, though we are wretches who deserve nothing but death, of your ineffable kindness, we beg that you would stoop down and from your endless bounty, give us a morsel of bread and we will praise you forever for your goodness to us.” Just a straightforward, “Give us this day our daily bread.” It’s a prayer of pure trust such as you only see from really small children who have not yet learned the embroidery (because they have not yet learned that some adults need to be truckled to) but who have completely internalized the fact that their Father loves them and will give them what they need. It is, in a curious sense, the opposite of selfishness since, as the Catechism says:
The trust of children who look to their Father for everything is beautiful. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” He gives to all the living “their food in due season.” Jesus teaches us this petition, because it glorifies our Father by acknowledging how good he is, beyond all goodness (2828).
Like the whole of the “Our Father,” this petition is made in the full awareness that prayer is always done in community. Just as we do not pray the My Father, so we do not pray, “Gimme this day my daily bread.” Instead, we pray as members of the covenant community of Jesus, people who have not invented this stuff for themselves, nor figured it out on their own, but who have been graciously welcomed into the Body of Christ by God and by other members of the Body, without whom we would be completely lost. By the same token, as we pray for “us” we pray on behalf of others who, likewise, need the help of our prayers just as much as we depend on the prayers of others. Our request for daily bread goes up to Heaven, not only on behalf of ourselves and our loved ones, but for the Church around the world. Somewhere in Somalia, a child may well be getting a meal right now because you, sitting in Suburbia U.S.A., prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is solidarity in action in Heaven (with the expectation, of course, that we shall likewise put it into practice “on earth as it is in heaven”). That is why the Christian tradition has always linked this prayer to concrete works of mercy such as feeding the hungry. To pray this prayer and ignore those in the world without the common necessities of life is to risk playing the wrong part in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Our unstable age tends to want to place a crazy emphasis on work or prayer as opposites, as though those who pray are exempt from feeding the hungry, and those who do social activism don’t need to pray. The sane Catholic balance is, “Pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on you.”
At its most elemental level, of course, “Give us this day our daily bread” is a prayer asking God to meet our elementary bodily needs — all that stuff right down at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. All our basic needs — food, drink, shelter, medicine, work, love, etc. — are represented by the image of daily bread: essentially, whatever we basically need. Christian prayer has great sympathy for those in need, but not so much for those praying out of mere renegade appetite. Contrary to the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel preacher, the gospel counsels have tended to radiate a general suspicion of hankering after more than you actually need. This doesn’t mean we should offer “modest” petitionary prayers, but rather that we should offer petitionary prayers which seek to glorify God rather than our own appetites. When the goal is God’s glory, Jesus urges us to Think Big (“For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you” [Mt 17:20]). But when it comes to the whole “O Lord, won’t you give me a Mercedes-Benz” school of prayer, James sums up the general biblical attitude, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas 4:2-3). Prayers prayed for the glory of God rather than for the delectation of our appetites can and do result in stunning acts of provision and grace from God. Whole orders in the Church, such as the Dominicans or the Sisters of Providence, have essentially functioned on the assumption that God will provide what is necessary and have achieved a global impact. That said, at the end of the day, petitionary prayer is ultimately ordered toward our eternal good and not merely to our temporal good. The same One who taught us this prayer and told the sheep that to feed the hungry is to feed Him (Mt 25:31-46) is the One who said, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). Therefore, the prayer for our daily bread is pregnant with significance in the Eucharistic tradition of the Church. As the Catechism says:
This petition, with the responsibility it involves, also applies to another hunger from which men are perishing: that is, by the Word he speaks and the Spirit he breathes forth. Christians must make every effort “to proclaim the good news to the poor.” There is a famine on earth, “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” For this reason the specifically Christian sense of this fourth petition concerns the Bread of Life: The Word of God accepted in faith, the Body of Christ received in the Eucharist.

Hebrew (and its cognate Aramaic) is a language without degrees of emphasis. You don’t say, “God is very very holy.” Instead, the way you emphasize is to repeat yourself by saying, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” In a similar way, the pedagogical style of the Hebraic teacher is to rhyme ideas rather than words. Jesus is thoroughly Jewish in teaching, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). Something like this is also going on in “Give us this day our daily bread.” Strictly speaking, you could simply say, “Give us bread each day,” but instead Jesus teaches us to emphasize the moment-by-moment dependence we have on God. Instead of some vast abstract theory about a God who inks a “once saved, always saved” contract with us and then leaves us alone to do as we please until whisking us off to Heaven, this petition reminds us that we can make no lifetime guarantees of fidelity to God in His absence. Apart from Him, says Jesus, we can do nothing. So we can, says Uncle Screwtape, make no “lavish promises of perpetual virtue.” For us, there is “not even the expectation of an endowment of ‘grace’ for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation.” That’s not a bug. That’s a feature. We are to live, day by day, in dependence on the day-by-day provision of God with only the light sufficient to see the next step. Thus, and no other way, do we learn humility.  One final tidbit about the petition “Give us this day our daily bread” is that the word translated “daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. The literal translation of the word is “super-essential,” and is, quite consciously, meant to remind us of the fact that, particularly in the profoundly Eucharistic New Testament, “bread” never means merely “the stuff you eat made of flour.” Rather, “bread” virtually always has a Eucharistic connotation as well. This can be seen, for instance, in Luke’s gospel, which bookends the whole story of Jesus with His birth at Bethlehem (“House of Bread”) and His being laid in a manger (a feed box) at one end of the story and, at the other end, tells us the tale of His revelation on the Emmaus Road when He took bread, gave thanks, broke it — and the eyes of the disciples are opened to see Him. All through the gospels, miracles involving bread and wine are directly connected to the source and summit of our Faith: the Holy Eucharist. Likewise, then, the prayer for our daily bread is also a Eucharistic prayer. No wonder that it is inseparable from the Eucharistic liturgy, since here, supremely, we eat the true bread from Heaven that Jesus came to give us in abundance. There is a profound truth here. There is no guarantee that the answer to any petitionary prayer is going to be “Yes.” Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies that could befall the human race would be for God to grant every prayer ever offered Him. And so God does not promise us that we will never miss a meal. There are times we may pray for our daily bread and yet not get what we asked for. God sometimes says, “No.” Hunger and famine have stalked Christians, just as they do the rest of our wretched race. Jesus fasted with us that we might, at times, fast with Him and experience bodily hunger as one of the ways into His holy Cross. But there is one place where God has never, in all the history of the Church, said “No” to the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread”: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There, every time the liturgy has been validly consecrated, God has sent His Spirit to transform mere earthly bread into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life. Prayed in that context, this petition is, without any possible comparison, the prayer God always answers with a resounding, “Yes.”

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  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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