Panting for French toast or the Eucharist

August 25th, 2015

My mom recently visited us in Boston, and she brought us evidence that the prodigious efforts of the alchemists of yore were not in vain. She carried with her a French toast recipe my sister has been using. Surely it is not really alchemy, you opine? I would only refute you by the bare fact that it starts with challah bread and ends with something surpassingly better than, yet still pleasantly reminiscent of, crème brûlée.

If the recipe is all you're really after, scroll down and have fun. But if you want to hear about something even better, read on.

Because here's the thing: Our Lord claims to be even better than transmuted French toast.

Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst." (John 6:35).

What can this mean? How can Jesus of Nazareth quench our deepest hunger and thirst? After all, Jesus is a person who, as far as many today are concerned, lived and died 2,000 years ago, end of story. One of the lessons a thoughtful person can observe is that when someone makes another person his or her reason for being, one and sometimes both parties end up warped if not utterly destroyed. (The Bible diagnoses this as the problem of idolatry.)

What makes Jesus of Nazareth so different? Why can Jesus bear our corrupt love and heal us when we can't non-destructively bear each other's?

Two things, answer Christians.

First, Jesus' death isn't the end of the story. Jesus rose from the dead and revealed himself to his disciples. This is the founding Christian claim, and it is a historical claim; to disprove it would be to invalidate Christianity. Yet it shows that our hunger and thirst for and worship of Jesus cannot destroy him. However corrupt we are, Jesus has overcome our sin and death.

Second, Jesus is God. Christians claim that Jesus exists in a personal union with the eternal Son of God and second person of the Trinity, such that in hungering and thirsting for him we're quenched by more than a human person of flesh and soul. We're quenched by God. God is infinite and immaterial and pure goodness, a limitless pure delight and an omniscient love. So, in hungering and thirsting for Jesus Christ, our deepest hunger and thirst may truly be quenched, and we may be healed such that we learn to hunger for and worship God rather than one or other of the finite good things God has made.

So, if you think the French toast is good, give the Lord a try.

In the words of St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th century), "Blessed is the person who has eaten the bread of love, which is Jesus."

One of the main ways Christians have hungered and thirsted for Jesus down through the centuries — and tasted and drank him — is through the Eucharist, the meal Jesus commanded his followers to keep in his memory.

The later 13th century Franciscan theologian Peter John Olivi joins a chorus of other medieval writers when he notes that the Lord's Prayer seems to contain a reference both to the Eucharist and to Jesus' own transcendent divinity. Interpreting Matthew 6:11’s “Give us this day our daily bread”, where “daily” has come into the Latin Vulgate translation as “supersubstantial,” Olivi writes:

"Matthew 6:11 [has] the word ‘supersubstantial’ whereas Luke has ‘daily.’ The reason is that the Son of God is bread that is beyond all substance and beyond all that supports and gives life to our mind. It is also to be granted that this bread of ours has been singularly given to us in the incarnation and passion and in the presentation of the sacramental altar."

Olivi picks up on the Latin "supersubstantial" in Matthew's version as a reference to the way the eternal Son of God is "beyond all substance and beyond all that supports and gives life to our mind." Olivi nonetheless thinks God freely gives us his own utterly transcendent and supersubstantial self in Christ's incarnation, his passion, and even in the Church's remembrance of these things in the Eucharist. It follows that, for Olivi, we should train ourselves to hunger and thirst for God's presence in the Eucharist.

A generation before Olivi, the great Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio lifts up St. Francis of Assisi's own comportment toward Jesus in the Eucharist, in a text which was to be the definitive Franciscan recollection of the life of its Jesus-loving founder. In The Life of St. Francis 9.2 Bonaventure depicts Francis’ loving desire for Jesus Christ as being alive and well during the liturgical celebration:

"Jesus Christ crucified always rested like a bundle of myrrh in the bosom of Francis’ soul (Song 1:12), and he longed to be totally transformed into him by the fire of ecstatic love… He was drawn to Christ with such fervent love, and the Beloved (Song 1:12) returned such intimate love to him that God’s servant always seemed to feel the presence of his Savior before his eyes, as he once intimately revealed to his companions. His very marrow burned with love for the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and he was overcome by wonder at such loving condescension and such condescending love. He received Holy Communion so often and so devoutly that he made others devout also, for at the sweet taste of the spotless Lamb (1 Peter 1:19) he was often rapt in ecstasy as if drunk in the Spirit."

Bonaventure depicts Francis as ecstatic during liturgy, with a love that wants to be united to and suffer a burning transformation into the Beloved. Francis himself suffers divine things as he longs for union with God, and before his eyes the Crucified is rendered visible in the slain spotless Lamb, the eucharistic host that Francis will become enraptured and drunk upon tasting. Bonaventure even describes Francis' devotion and wonder at God's condescension and love as spreading to others, making them devout too.

Does such piety and devotion around the Eucharist seem odd or foreign to you? Does it seem superstitious or outside your spiritual sensibility? Take heart. All things are possible with God who desires to save us and give us himself. We live in a world where challah can be improved far beyond crème brûlée.

The French toast recipe below is the ecstatic French toast recipe just as my mom texted it to me. (My sister informs me that, pre-tweaks, she first found the recipe in Mark Bittman's “How to Cook Everything.”)

1 c milk
2 eggs
Dash salt
Dash cinnamon
1 t vanilla
1 T sugar
Challah bread
Dip bread in milk mixture both sides immerse very briefly
Cook in a small amount of butter
Call if you have questions (Please don't call Clifton's mom. -Ed.)
Can sprinkle with powdered sugar if you wish
Serve with maple syrup and berries.
Confession: I used half and half when I made it in Boston instead of milk and I doubled the recipe


Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of "Christ the Lightgiver" in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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