The Lord’s Prayer: “Give Us This Day our Daily Bread”

We continue with our examination of the Lord’s Prayer, and come now to the petition, “Give us today our daily bread”. One might be tempted to wonder what one could say about this petition by way of elaboration or explanation, since it seems pretty straightforward. I suggest, however, three things.

First of all, that little word, “daily”. The Greek is επιουσιος/ epiousios. It is a rare enough word that Origen thought that perhaps the Evangelists had invented the word themselves (in his On Prayer, 27.7). Origen could not have known of the fact that it turned up in a record of a housekeeping account in Fayum, Egypt, where it referred to a food allowance. But what precisely does it mean? In Acts 16:11, we find in Luke’s note on the apostolic itinerary the following: “We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the next day, to Neapolis.” The Greek rendered here “the next day” is επιουση/ epiouse. It is reasonable therefore to translate the “epiousion bread” as “bread for the next day”, or “tomorrow’s bread”. This was also the interpretation of St. Jerome.

This means that Christ bids us pray for what we need to live another day. We are not bidden to pray for enough bread to last the coming year, or the coming month, or even the coming week. Rather, though we may plan for years to come (RRSPs are not really ungodly), we must live one day at a time. It is of a piece with the rest of the Lord’s teaching: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34). We might miss the wry Jewish humour hidden in this counsel, for it envisions a person wringing his hands every night when the sun goes down, angsting over whether or not the sun will rise again and tomorrow will occur. Tomorrow cannot benefit from our angst and worry. It will come right on time, the Lord says, without any help from us. Relax!

St. James says the same thing about living in the present and trusting in God. We tend not only to worry, but to presume. We are masters of our fate! We will decide what we will do in the future. Indeed, “today and tomorrow we will go into such and such a town, and spend a year there, and trade, and get gain!” (James 4:13) Or, maybe not. Maybe we will die tonight and no such plans for trade and gain will ever materialize. The people going to work in the Twin Towers on 9-11 no doubt had plans for that day and the following day themselves. Perhaps they assumed they would take their spouses out for dinner that night or the following day, or visit their in-laws that coming weekend. They discovered the truth that attends all human existence: we are “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). A good way of living would acknowledge the uncertainty of all our plans, and write them, if not on water, then at least with a tentativeness born from humility. We should say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and shall do this or that” (James 4:15). We may plan for the future, but must live one day at a time.

This was the lesson that God wanted to teach Israel even before they entered the Promised Land. When He cared for them in the howling wilderness, He fed them with manna. The provision was given every single day, with enough manna only for that day. The next day’s manna would be gathered the next day, and if one attempted to gather two day’s worth of manna, the manna left over for the next day would spoil. The exception proved the rule: on the day before the Sabbath, twice as much manna could be gathered, teaching Israel to rest on the Sabbath, and on that day only, the left over manna did not spoil (Exodus 16). We are to trust God every day, not presuming on the future or worrying about it. We pray for our epiousion bread, enough to get us through another day.

Secondly, we note that the term “bread” here refers not just to the material with which we make sandwiches, but all our food, all that we need to live. In the ancient world, to “eat bread” meant “to eat a meal”, which of course usually included more than just bread. This petition therefore also includes the health that we need to live. More importantly, as the Fathers were keen to point out, it includes what we need for our spiritual health. In other words, it also includes the Eucharist. Thus St. Cyprian of Carthage: “‘Daily bread’ may be understood both spiritually and simply…For Christ is the bread of life…Now we ask that this bread be given to us ‘today’ lest we who are in Christ and receive His Eucharist daily as the food of salvation should be separated from Christ’s body”.

We also note in this petition that the emphasis is on our needs, not our desires. There is much that we desire that we do not actually need (Black Friday sales notwithstanding). Our needs are actually very simple. St. Paul has advice for us all, especially those of us in affluent nations: “If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). My old Anglican bishop of blessed memory, Bishop Short, used to remind us that by global standards if we ate breakfast that morning, we were rich, for many people in the world were not rich enough to eat breakfast or have more than one meal a day. The Lord bids us pray for our needs, not (as one wag said) our greeds. We pray for our daily bread, not our daily Black Forest cake. This petition rebukes our greed, and bids us to live simply.

Finally, we note that our bread comes from God. We might be tempted to think that it comes from Safeway—i.e. that it comes from farmers, and then from truckers who brought it from the farm to the store, and then from the retailers, who stocked the shelves and sold it to us. True enough, and a blessing on farmers, truckers, and retailers! But in fact our bread ultimately comes from God, as does everything else we receive in this life, including our very next breath. That is why we give thanks to Him whenever we eat. We are all beggars at His table, and depend upon Him for absolutely everything. The petition asking Him for our epiousion bread reminds us of this blessed dependence.

Next: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”

4 comments:

  1. Thank you, Father.
    Of course there was other manna which remained incorrupt: that in the gold pot inside the Ark of the Covenant. (Like the incorrupt remains of some chosen saints. )
    Was this a type of the Eucharist to come, or a promise of the Incarnation, or both, neither, or more?
    Thank you.

    1. According to Orthodox hymnography, it was a type of the Incarnation: as the jar held the manna, so the Theotokos contained Christ, the Bread of Life.

  2. And of course at this time of year, the obvious reference is to Bethlehem the house of bread from which Jesus the Bread of life is born.

  3. As I have lived in the Church the daily bread has come to mean all of His Providential mercy. That was not obvious to me before.

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