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.