Breads of the World
“Breads of the World” Luke 22:14-20
I stood staring down at the lump of dough that sat on the workbench before me, my heart sinking. The dough had a slack, disinterested, dispirited look, as if the mere thought of rising was more than could be expected of such a sad combination of flour, salt, yeast, and water. “Your dough should be developing elasticity,” my teacher Richard explained. “If you poke it, it should have a little give to it.” I poked the dough, frowning at the indentation my finger made. There was no give to be seen. “Mine isn’t working! My bread is broken,” I wailed, and Richard sailed over to my bench to inspect the damage. I was taking a two day Artisan Hearth Bread class at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center, visions of gorgeous rustic country loaves with their crackling exterior and complex inner terrain with a holy crumb dancing in my head. If anyone could teach me how to make such bread it would be Richard, who was at the time, one of the bakers at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont. Patient, kind, and encouraging, Richard urged us to treat the dough as we would a little child: gentle, yet firm. I thought about Jesus words about welcoming the little children, and I tried to welcome my little mound of dough. Throughout the class, Richard kept talking about the life of the bread, until he had evangelized us all to believe that bread was a living, breathing entity.
Richard looked inquiringly at my dough, performing a diagnostic as he touched it expertly with his red, chapped fingers that were constantly covered with flour. Suddenly, right before my eyes, the dough sprang to life, fairly leaping into his hands like the beloved responding to the practiced hands of the lover. He swiftly worked the dough, kneading and pushing and forming, until it sat in a happy, beautifully formed round. As he walked away, I stared at my bread dough. I could almost see it breathe a sigh of relief. It was alive.
Richard, baker extraordinaire, is not the first to claim that bread has a life of its own. Throughout the history of humanity, bread has played such an important role in people’s lives that it is as if bread has assumed its own personality. Bread is not a bit player in the drama of human history; it has a starring role. Wars have been fought over the control of wheat fields and battles waged over the management of bread production. Since the discovery of baking in the ancient world, bread has had a political and a personal history. Almost every culture has some form of bread or baking, and images of bread as the source of life permeate language and cultural habits throughout the world.
In her book, The Italian Baker, Carol Field points out that “…Italians express many of their most intensely felt sentiments through sayings and proverbs that use bread as their common metaphor.” For example, a generous, down to earth person would be described as “a good bread.” Or there is a saying: “Without bread, everyone is an orphan.” One would say of a trustworthy, reliable person “he is a piece of bread.” Or of a person who knew what was what, it would be said: “they knew the difference between bread and rocks.” And considering the losses of war, the Italians say: “The announcement of war is given by cannons, but bread always has the last word.” In other words, when the bread runs out, the war is lost.
When Jesus came on the scene, you might say that the bread was very much running out. In the world of Roman domination, the emperor was in some ways the Bread King, controlling the production and sale of grain. The Emperor had the power to withhold bread as a way of punishing those who opposed him and granting bread to those who supported him.
Heinrich Jacob points out in his book Six Thousand Years of Bread that under Roman rule people experienced hunger not only as a local phenomenon, but as a larger problem. Rome controlled the larger distribution of grain, and when hunger affected a region far away, the impact was felt locally as grain was sent to other areas. The concern about getting enough bread to eat was real and daily.
Jesus was born into a world where bread had political dimensions. And he was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” In the early defining moments of his ministry, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. As a person who “knew what was what,” Jesus wisely distinguished bread from a rock. He knew that he could not meet physical hunger in the way that he could satisfy spiritual hunger.
Even when Jesus does multiply loaves of bread to feed his hungry congregation, he knows better than they that he has come to provide spiritual nourishment. Jesus is the bread of eternal life. But many misunderstood, and mistook Jesus for the Bread God, and hoped that he would defeat the Bread King and solve the problem of earthly hunger. In speaking of himself as the bread of life, Jesus tapped into the deep longing of the human psyche to be nourished and sustained by the presence of God, a God who provided more than manna in the wilderness.
On this World Communion Sunday, we hold up bread as a reminder of our basic human needs and hungers, needs we share with every human being on this Earth. James Macguire notes that in France, when bread was made with levain, or sourdough starter only, the members of a community would share their starter with others when they lost their starter. The generosity of others kept the vitality of bread going. We also use bread as a way to think of Christ as the one who gives us life. We know that everywhere in the world, sometime today, Christians are lifting a piece of bread to their mouths. The bread may be unleavened, made with yeast or sourdough starter, it may be in the form of simple flatbreads or crackers. Everywhere in the world, sometime today, followers of Jesus have dipped their hands into the flour and adding salt and yeast and water and working the dough until they create a living thing, something that will be shared with the community. The nourishment of bread reminds us of the reality that many hunger in our world, that God calls us to share our bread with one another, and that God has the capacity to nourish us all in this sacred meal.
As I watched the bread dough come alive under Richard’s hands, I developed a new awareness of the properties of bread. I no longer see the bread on the plate as a product, but rather as a process. The bread expands as it rises. It collapses as the baker presses it down, then it rises again. The bread breathes in and out, like the great breath of God. Bread has a life, and so the bread on the communion plate is alive. Alive with the ingredients of God, bringing us to life again and again. Jesus is the Bread God, in a mysterious way which we can’t explain. But we take, and eat this bread, broken for us, and we are fed. He is manna from heaven, always enough. Amen.
1 Carol Field. The Italian Baker. New York: Harper Collins, 1985. p. 17.
2 Ibid., pp. 17-19.
3 H. E. Jacob. Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History. New York: The Lyons Press. P.
4 Ibid., p. 93.