Give us this day our supersubstantial bread.
-Matthew 6:11 Douay Rheims
The word is epiousios (ἐπιούσιος) in Greek – translated daily in most English bibles- and I find it fascinating, possibly telling, and even a bit confusing.
At a youth conference in Boston when in my teens I met a seminary student from Holy Cross. During a conversation about translating from Greek he mentioned the word epiousios and how it doesn’t exactly mean daily in reference to bread. I don’t remember much of the rest of our conversation save this, and it has stuck with me since. The seminarian said: “The word (epiousios) is not found anywhere except in the Gospels. I think Jesus made the word up.” As it turns out this is a popular belief; in fact the great Origen thought that the authors of Matthew and Luke made it up.
So what is this word? Msgr. Charles Pope writes: “[Epiousios] seems to be a compound word from epi+ousios. Now epi means over, above, beyond, in addition to, or some similar superlative. Ousious refers to the substance of something. Hence, to put these words together we have something amounting to supersubstantial, or super-essential.”
Is there a noetic or spiritual component to this? Is it about more than bodily nourishment?
Some of the Fathers take epiousios to mean simply daily. In his commentary on Matthew St. John Chrysostom writes:
But mark, I pray thee, how even in things that are bodily, that which is spiritual abounds. For it is neither for riches, nor for delicate living, nor for costly raiment, nor for any other such thing, but for bread only, that He hath commanded us to make our prayer. And for “daily bread,” so as not to “take thought for the morrow.” Because of this He added, “daily bread,” that is, bread for one day.
And not even with this expression is He satisfied, but adds another too afterwards, saying, “Give us this day;” so that we may not, beyond this, wear ourselves out with the care of the following day.
We’ve already dug into this reading of “daily bread” in part four, so let’s focus on supersubstantial. St. Jerome says:
“The word used by the Hebrews to denote supersubstantial bread is maar. I found that it means “for tomorrow” so that the meaning here is “give us this day our bread for tomorrow” that is, for the future.” (Commentary on Matthew 1.6.11)
For the future as in tomorrow would seem to contradict Mat. 6:34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” However, we might take Lukes rendering of the phrase (Luke 11:3) which adds “each day” from which we could infer that we are asking the Father to care for us all the days of our lives.
I find St. Jerometo be a good resource for this because his translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) gives us two renderings of epiousios – one as daily and one as supersubstantial. When I asked my friend John Pepino, professor of Latin at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary why this is he put it this way, “it looks like St. Jerome was hedging his bets translating one as daily and one as supersubstantial.” He shrugs with a grin “we don’t know.”
In the same commentary St. Jerome writes:
“We can also understand supersubstantial bread in another sense as bread that is above all substances and surpasses all creatures(ibid). “
What if this “bread for the future” is eschatological in nature? The bread of the Kingdom? The super-essential body of Christ, the bread above all and surpassing all? The Eucharistic connotations are hard to ignore.
The Kingdom is certainly likened to a feast in Scripture (Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 8:11; 22:1-10; Luke 13:29; 14:15-24; Rev.19:6-9) When we assemble as the Body of Christ for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy we are gathering in the Kingdom. All divine services begin “Blessed is the Kingdom…” What do we do in the Kingdom? We feast!
St. Cyprian of Carthage in Treatise IV “On The Lord’s Prayer” writes:
As the prayer goes forward, we ask and say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And this may be understood both spiritually and literally, because either way of understanding it is rich in divine usefulness to our salvation. For Christ is the bread of life; and this bread does not belong to all men, but it is ours. And according as we say, “Our Father,” because He is the Father of those who understand and believe; so also we call it “our bread,” because Christ is the bread of those who are in union with His body.
He goes on to dwell on the literal aspects of “daily bread” as well quoting Proverbs 10:3 he writes “For daily bread cannot be wanting to the righteous man, since it is written, ‘The Lord will not slay the soul of the righteous by hunger.’” He also reminds us of Matthew 6:34. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Mystogigical Catechesis certainly sees “daily bread” as the Eucharist writing:
“Our common bread is not supersubstantial (ἐπιούσιος): but this Holy Bread is supersubstantial, that is, appointed for the substance of the soul. This Bread goeth not into the belly and is not cast out into the draught, but is distributed into thy whole system for the benefit of body and soul.”
I take great delight in the layers of Truth found in the Holy Scriptures. I like to think of the double meaning in “daily/supersubstantial bread” is not unlike the union of flesh and spirit that is man. We are not pure material nor are we pure spirit like the angels. Christ quoting Deuteronomy said “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Mat.4:4) Here he is not denying that we live by eating, but reminding us that our life is more than flesh and blood. Pondering this saying further will reveal an icon of the Eucharist. Christ is the Word of the Father and we have our life in Him.
They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.” Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”
– John 6:30-35