Epiousios: Our Father . . . Give Us This Day Our Daily Supersubstantial Bread
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"Our Father," we pray, "give us this day our daily bread." Wrapped up in that ordinary, jejune, quotidian word--daily--is the mystery of word mysteries. This is how things are sometimes: the greatest mystery is directly in front of us, in our day-to-day lives, in the humdrum and the routine, and we fail even to see it or somehow we have allowed the wonder to run all out of it.
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Continuing our series on the three sacred languages, Tres Linguae Sacrae, we will take a look a remarkable word firmly ensconced--yet for most of us hidden--in the Lord's Prayer, the Our Father.
"Our Father," we pray, "give us this day our daily bread."
The words, of course, come from the Gospels.
This is how it is found translated in the New American Bible:
"Gives us this day our daily bread." (Matt. 6:11 NAB)
But wrapped up in that ordinary, jejune, quotidian word--daily--is the mystery of word mysteries. This is how things are sometimes: the greatest mystery is directly in front of us, in our day-to-day lives, in the humdrum and the routine, and we fail even to see it or somehow we have allowed the wonder to run all out of it.
Here, the word "daily" is like a sacrament, very like the Eucharist itself: a humble and plain daily thing--bread--which both hides and reveals a deeper reality, a reality of grace, of mystery, of a supernatural reality hid-but-tied-by-a-knot-only-God-can-tie to a natural reality.
In the Eucharist, the confected bread looks like "daily" bread, but a Catholic knows--with the certainty of Faith--that the underlying substance has changed and the reality hid by the accidental veil of plain bread is Jesus, body and soul and divinity, the entire Jesus.
By the Lord's design, the presence of bread veils the gracious reality of God himself. Something not "daily," but something "supersubstantial" has taken place.
This is how the word "daily" in the Lord's prayer be thought. It is both mundane and heavenly, earthly and ethereal, natural and supernatural.
In the Lord's Prayer, the word "daily" is an accurate enough translation of the common Latin form of the prayer, which is derived from the oldest Latin translation (the Vetus Latina) which predated St. Jerome's Vulgate:
Pater noster . . . . panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie.
Quotidianum means "daily."
But that's not the end of the story.
If one goes beneath the Latin and looks at the original Greek text in Matthew 6:11 or Luke 11:3, one discovers something remarkable. It is here--covered up under veil of translation--that we find this mysterious, marvelous, even sacred word.
Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον.
If you peer under the veil of the English word "daily," you will find this wondrous nugget of a word: ἐπιούσιον, or, transliterated, epiousion.
The word epiousion, an adjective modifying the word bread (ἄρτον = arton), is the accusative form of the adjective epiousios. It is the only adjective in the entirety of the Lord's Prayer, suggesting a special or unique importance.
The mystery in the word epiousios is that it is a unique word, found only in Scriptures, and dubiously in one other text, a 5th century Egyptian papyrus (the Sayce transcription of the Hawara papyrus, an accounting entry, which has since been lost and which isn't particularly helpful).
For all practical purposes, the word epiousios is therefore what we call a hapax legomenon, an invented word that fills a unique need. Very alike another word-the word used for Mary, kecharitomene, which we addressed in another article in this series.
Origen (d. ca. 254), a Father of the Church whom Pope Benedict XVI called a "one of the great masters of the Greek language," mentions the unique word in his book On Prayer. Origen says that the word is mentioned nowhere by any Greek writer, whether in common usage or in philosophy. This word, he is convinced, was "formed by the evangelists" perhaps to translate the original Aramaic or perhaps Hebrew word Jesus used to teach his disciples and which has now been lost.
The great Tuscan medieval poet Dante apparently speculated that Jesus used the word "manna," the bread that came down from heaven by the mercy of God to assuage the hunger of his chosen people, since in his Purgatorio (Canto 11) he refers to this part of the Lord's Prayer as follows:
Dŕ oggi a noi la cotidiana manna.
Give us today, our daily manna.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI discusses this remarkable word epiousios. He says that our efforts to understand the meaning of the word epiousios hhave to "depend on etymologies" of the Greek word, "and the study of the context," and the understanding of the Church's tradition.
But, as Benedict XVI himself acknowledges, the etymology is not clear. The word might be formed by combining the two Greek words: epi (over, above, beyond, "super") and ousia (substance). An alternative explanation is that it is formed by combining the two Greek words epi (near) and iousa (day).
According to Pope Benedict XVI, based upon etymological studies two principal interpretations of the word epiousios exist.
The first is that the word means "necessary for existence." Origen defines it as "needful," suggesting that we are praying for all or bodily and spiritual needs in this part of the Lord's Prayer. "On this reading," Pope Benedict XVI says, "the petition would run as follows: Give us today the bread that we need in order to live." Of course, if we see ourselves as creatures with body and soul, it means things needful for life here on earth and the future life in heaven.
The second interpretation suggests that what is meant is "bread for the future," that is bread "for the following day." But as Pope Benedict XVI, this does not seem correct if applied to temporal things. Jesus expressly told his apostles not to fear or be anxious about the future. (Luke 12:22-26; Matt. 6:25-34)
If it does mean "bread for the future," Pope Benedict XVI suggests that it is pointing to the "bread that really does belong to the future: the true manna of God," "the eternal Word of God," who "will be our bread, the food of the eternal wedding banquet." Under this vantage point, it is a "petition for an anticipation of the world to come, asking the Lord to give already 'today' the future bread, the bread of the new world-Himself."
This is an indirect reference, then, to the Bread of the Future--Jesus, the "Bread of Life"--who is with us now under the veil of "daily bread," the Eucharist. The Fathers of the Church, Pope Benedict observes, "were practically unanimous" in understanding the word epiousios to stand "as a Eucharistic petition."
"In this sense," Benedict XVI wrote, the Our Father in the context of the Mass is "a Eucharistic table-prayer." It is a form of thanksgiving-"grace" before sharing in the sacred and sacrificial meal. Therefore, though prayed daily by the faithful in their daily, private lives, it is also properly placed in the context of the liturgy, the public service of the people of God to God.
St. Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate from the Greek, seems to have despaired, and so he translated the epiousios of Luke 6:11 as quotidianum--daily, and the epiousios in Matthew 6:11 as supersubstantialem--supersubstantial.
The Douay Rheims translation--which slavishly and reliably followed the Latin Vulgate--therefore renders Matthew 6:11 as: Give us this day our supersubstantial bread.
Benedict XVI observes that St. Jerome's translation is legitimate, and thereby points "to the new, higher 'substance' that the Lord gives us in the Holy Sacrament as the true bread of life."
This word epiousios which we veil by translating it with the English word "daily" is "meaning-full," especially when conjoined to Biblical notion of manna, the bread that came down from heaven to feed the wandering Jews on the way to their Promised Land. Or when related to Jesus' temptation where he observes that man does not live by "bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). Or when understood within Jesus' miracles involving the multiplication of loaves and calling himself the "bread of life" and promises the Eucharist. Or when understood within the context of the Last Supper, or the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross to which the Last Supper is intimately tied. Or if looked upon as the seal of our future life where we move from being hid in Christ in God and seeing God darkly, to seeing God face to face.
"Are we to suppose that Jesus excluded from the petition for bread everything that He tells us about bread and everything that He wants to give us as bread?" Benedict XVI asked. "When we consider Jesus' message in its entirety, then it is impossible to expunge the Eucharistic dimension from the fourth petition of the Our Father."
"True," the now emeritus Pope continues, "the earthly nitty-gritty of the petition for daily bread for everyone is essential. But this petition also helps us to transcend the purely material and to request already now what is to come "tomorrow", the new bread. And when we pray for 'tomorrow's' bread today, we are reminded to live already today from tomorrow, from the love of God, which calls us all to be responsible for one another."
St. Augustine seems to have taken Benedict XVI's broad approach and adopted the normal Catholic synthetic formula: both/and. In a Sermon to the newly baptized (infantes) (No. 227), he said: "You should realize that you have received what you will receive in the future, what you ought to receive daily." Deftly, St. Augustine combined the physical, with the Eucharistic, with the eschatological or the future coming of Christ which we all await.
So what does this word epiousios then mean? Does it have one meaning? If it does, we despair to find it.
Or, because one meaning cannot be determined are we to despair that it even has any meaning?
Scott Hahn neatly resolves the issue in discussing this question. "Tradition," he says, "leaves us with a solution," as to all the multiple meanings of the word. "It's all true."
That's the approach of the Catholic Catechism (§ 2837), which brings all meanings together:
"'Daily' (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of 'this day,' to confirm us in trust 'without reservation.' Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally (epi-ousios: 'super-essential'), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the 'medicine of immortality,' without which we have no life within us. Finally in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: 'this day' is the Day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason it is fitting for the Eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day."
The many-but-yet-related meanings of the word epiousios are part of the riches, the patrimony, of the Church founded by the Lord Jesus, our "daily" and "supersubstantial" "Bread of Life." And its all hidden in a veil, the word "daily" which hides that mystery of word mysteries, the word epiousios.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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