The Bread of Life

Many a preacher on the Bread of Life discourse in St John’s Gospel has come a-cropper when waxing lyrical about making bread. If one hasn’t made bread oneself, one can easily forget the labour involved, the heat, the sweat, the sheer physicality of the process as it was for all bakers until recent times. Very few have had the experience of hacking off great lumps of baker’s yeast from a huge block, mixing the dough in a vast bowl, then pummelling it with, just possibly, the thought of the enemy of the moment flickering through one’s head as one does so; next, waiting for the bread to rise as one sets the coal-oven ablaze, sloshing a wet mop round the inside to raise the requisite amount of steam; then finally, baking it, handling the heavy bread-tins with a large wooden paddle — all in the early morning while the rest of the monastery is asleep. For most people, if they make bread at all, it is a sanitized version involving a breadmaking machine and quick-yeast sachets. The rest rely on bread made by others and bought at a shop or stall. It has no poetry in it and therefore, for the most part, very little prayer.

It is a great challenge, then, when Jesus Christ describes himself as the Bread of Life and the great sacrament of communion with him uses bread and wine as its matter. For us in the West, bread is comparatively cheap and ordinary. It rarely features at every meal; it has ceased to be a staple of life. We brush crumbs away and throw them out to the birds or put them in the food-compost bin. We no longer treasure bread. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we so often fail to see and reverence Christ in the ordinary or everyday. We look for him in the extraordinary and, when we fail to find him, are cast down.

There is a monastic habit I found quite sickening when I first encountered it but have gradually come to see in a more positive light. We eat at a plain woooden table and there is usually bread at every meal. At the end, just before we sing grace, we brush the crumbs in our place together and eat them. It is meant to remind us that food is precious, a blessing of God, and bread, in particular, a daily reminder of Christ’s sacrificial love. We treasure bread both because of what it is and what it has the potential to become: the Body of Christ. The wonderful, the extraordinary, is here and now before us in those trifling crumbs, that little bit of bread we are tempted to be so casual about.

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10 thoughts on “The Bread of Life”

  1. This has really caught me unawares. My husband used to be our breadmaker and one of the things that irked him most about his declining health was that he couldn’t do it an more. He made lovely bread, wholemeal mainly, but also white to please our daughter and the most amazing currant buns. He always used fresh yeast (he worked for Daily Bread Co-operative and could buy it there) and NEVER used a bread machine). He died last year.
    Thank you for that reflection
    I’m not getting very far with my search fora copy of the Rule of St Benedict. I have searched for the Cary-Elwes book you mention, but only get a quote in dollars with the book sent from America. Amazon UK can’t find it at all. The OSB website when searched for author and title came up with 433 entries, none of which made much sense. Could I please ask for some more direction? Thank you

  2. Many years ago, during a long period of illness, my GP prescribed – yes, prescribed – bread-making. I learned to make a plain loaf and then more elaborate items. To this day, I marvel at the combination of just a few very simple ingredients being turned into the staff of life. My Mother always used to say that everything has its time, so I eschew bread-making machines at least for as long as I can. I have, I must admit, sometimes vanquished “the enemy of the moment” whilst making bread. Those Conquering Loaves always seem to come out the best. Haha.

  3. I can only agree that we (I) often expect something dramatic/extraordinary to happen at Mass/prayer when what I should look for is something plain, nourishing and wholesome like the bread that might get taken for granted…

  4. My local (Anglican) church holds a monthly informal service, which can be a bit too much a free for all for me, but occasionally the team come up with a real gem. I’m told that the other week our priest came up with the challenge, could we try making bread in church? And then, use it for communion?

    The church wardens thought hard, out came the bread maker. They prepped up the dough in advance. And then cooked it on a George Foreman grill during the pre-communion prayers.

    It doesn’t quite have the same poetry as your description of bread-making, but apparently it went down really well with the congregation. I’m inclined to think it’s just that it rather more tasty than the usual stale-ish wafers, but maybe I should be kinder and presuppose that they found Jesus came through in the ordinary. Or in doing something a little bit different, depending on how you look at it.

  5. A priest, now deceased, once said he found it easier to believe that the wafer was the Body of Christ than to believe the wafer was bread.

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