We know from several sources that the ancient Greeks had a tradition of giving a meal to those who were about to set out on a journey. Before long the gift of the meal extended to other gifts necessary for travel: clothes, food and blankets. In Greece this custom came to be called the 'ephodion'. In Latin this was translated as 'viaticus' meaning "of or pertaining to a road or journey." In Roman temple worship there was a traditional belief that the final meal of a dying person gave them strength to cross over the River Styx from this side to the other.
Because Jesus had left us the Eucharistic meal in his memory, one can see why the early Christians took up a similar idea in regard to Communion and even used the same name: Viaticum. By 325 it is recommended that Communion be given to the dying as "food for the journey." We still do. In recent years this ancient phrase in relation to the Eucharist has reappeared and become popular. Rather than exclusively refer to the last communion we might take in this life, however, "food for the journey" as used in the 21st
Century, has come to mean the life the Eucharist gives us to live out our faith each week. This entire tradition finds it roots in today's Gospel.
Following the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd thinks that when Jesus says he is the Bread of Life he is simply referring to the source of their next meal. If this were true it could a new spin on what some might mean when they use the term, "cafeteria Catholicism." The poor old crowds and the disciples in John's Gospel are always getting their wires crossed when they listen to Jesus. They rarely understand his deeper message.
Jesus, however, is referring to himself as the fulfillment of all appetites, where we will never be hungry or thirsty again. Appetites are important things. They demand regular attention. Physical appetites tell us that we need nourishment, hydration, exercise or sleep. We have learnt to read our body's signs and if we ignore them we die. We also have emotional appetites, where we need affection, acceptance and a listening ear. If we ignore these signs our mental health deteriorates and our quality of life is compromised.
Jesus, however, also alerts us to our spiritual appetites. These are the needs we have for Him, for meaning and purpose, for faith, hope and love. If we ignore these appetites, we can be lost in regard to where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.
As the 6th chapter of John's Gospel goes on, Jesus becomes clearer about what the hunger and thirst he has come to fill. And as he does the crowd's wires get uncrossed and they're shocked. Jesus, the Bread of Life, is interested in us fulfilling our physical, emotional and spiritual appetites in this world as a way of glimpsing the life to come in Him, where all our hungers and thirsts will be fulfilled.
Now all of this can seem rather can rather theologically heady, a bit "out there." Michael McGirr in Finding God's Traces enables us to see how the "food for the journey" has its origins our dining rooms.
"It unfortunate that the family dinner table is not as common as once it was. Some people grow up learning to eat on the run. In some households the same meal can be eaten at the same time in five different parts of the same building: in front of the TV, beside the computer, on the back deck and so on. Creating a family table is easier said than done, especially in a fast food age. But it's worth the effort. The table is the gathering place, the place to listen and talk. Food and stories sit down together.
The family home is sometimes called 'the domestic Church'. The meal table is a mirror image of the Eucharist, in which we hear stories from our faith tradition and are fed the Bread of Life. Grace before eating can help us to draw together some of the threads of the day, to give thanks for what each person has been doing, to remember those who are suffering or hungry and to remind ourselves that the family table is also the table of the Lord, the place where God sits among us, is patient when we argue, laughs at our funny stories and knows whose turn it is to stack the dishwasher."
Richard Leonards, S.J.