My family has recently taken to making bread. The impetus for this was less artisanal than our desire to enjoy loaves of bread without the plastic bags they invariably come in. For a couple of months now we’ve been working hard to reduce our use of plastics, made easier (I must say) by the nearby Indoor Market with it’s butcher and produce.
I can’t say that we’ve mastered the art yet, but the smell of the baking bread and the imperfect results are enough to satisfy. As with most things, too, there’s a special delight in enjoying what your own hands have made…even if the technique of slicing evenly continues to elude me. It’s also fun to experiment with different ingredients to see what they produce.
When making our bread, we generally use varying ratios of white and wholewheat flour, ground from grain milled from wheat grown in some unknown field. Although there are pressing issues pertaining to wheat production (see here and here), the growing, milling, and baking of wheat into bread is one of the most ancient practices of settled humanity. In fact, we surmise that it was the discovery of how to do this that led us to hang up our walking staves and settle down. From bread springs all of human civilisation.
This memory of the impact of grain on humanity perhaps explains why it played a role in most Near Eastern and Mediterranean religions. The ancient Egyptians had the goddess Renenutet, the Greeks Ceres, and the Romans Demeter. Each of these religions used bread in their rituals, offering it to the gods for plentiful harvest, fertility, and childbirth. In each case, the ordinary produce of the earth, grain, was sanctified by an offering to the gods: earth and the divine came together ritually to give meaning to the people.
We see this dynamic powerfully expressed within the Jewish tradition in the Passover meal. The matzo, or unleavened bread, recalls the bread baked in haste by the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 12.39) before they fled captivity in Egypt. At the start of the meal, the bread is called the ‘Bread of Affliction’ that the Hebrew ate during their slavery. But at the end of the meal, it’s called the ‘Bread of Freedom’, signifying their escape through the power of YHWH. Rabbi Sacks explains how the two can be the same thing:
Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the seder by inviting others to join us. That is how we turn affliction into freedom.
Within the Christian tradition, bread is the focus of the Eucharist and (depending on the tradition) either is or symbolizes the Body of Christ. ‘This is my body given to you. Do this in remembrance of me’, Jesus is recalled as saying at the Last Supper. In that Passover meal, he took the Jewish symbolism and reoriented it to express a freedom that comes through faith in and love of him that spring from his broken body on the cross. The Eucharistic meal continues to this day to be the shared, symbolic meal of Christians as formative of us as a people as the Passover meal is for Jews. In it, we encounter the same ancient dynamic of heaven and earth uniting to evoke meaning for the people who share it. History seems to suggest that this is the only way we can collectively discover meaning in this chaotic world. I believe it also demonstrates that it’s the only sustainable way for us to value the natural world as a gift to be honoured rather than just a resource to be exploited.
One aspect of the cultivating-milling-baking process that I believe is unique to Christian is how it symbolizes fellowship. The image of scattered grain gathered together to form one loaf of bread captured the imagination of early Christians as an evocative symbol of unity. The earliest example of this comes from The Didache, written sometime during the first 150 years of the Church:
As grain was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom (9.4).
Here we find the striking image of a multitude of grain dispersed across a landscape being brought together to form a single, nourishing loaf of bread. This was understood to represent the activity of God in the world: in Christ the dispersed and warring nations were being gathered together as one. Thus, the Eucharistic bread symbolized not just the Body of Christ but also humanity united in a fellowship of love. The bread that brings meaning also instills a mission: ‘This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you’. Mandatum is the Latin word for commandment and the origin of the name for today, Maundy Thursday, when Christians recall Christ’s Last Supper.
In the early 5th century, Augustine of Hippo gathered all these images together in a series of striking sermons. In his Sermon 227, he writes,
In this loaf of bread you are given clearly to understand how much you should love unity. I mean, was that loaf made from one grain? Weren’t there many grains of wheat? But before they came into the loaf they were all separate; they were joined together by means of water after a certain amount of pounding and crushing. Unless wheat is ground, after all, and moistened with water, it can’t possibly get into this shape which is called bread. In the same way you too were being ground and pounded, as it were, by the humbling of fasting and the sacrament of exorcism. Then came baptism, and you were, in a manner of speaking, moistened with water in order to be shaped into bread. But it’s not yet bread without fire to bake it. So what does fire represent? That’s the chrism, the anointing. Oil, the fire-feeder, you see, is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.
The simply materials of nature signify and enable people to grab hold of meaning in this world and allow us to see ourselves reflected in the simplest products of a bountiful earth. As with Christ’s parables, we discover God not in majesty, high thoughts, or mystical vision but in the ordinary stuff of the earth. The same grain that brought scattered humanity together to form civilization now brings scattered humanity together to be formed by God.