On Baking Bread and Breaking Bread
(Deut.8:2-3, 14-16; 1Cor.10:16-17; Jn.6:51-58)
Home-baking has become very popular lately. Lots of people are now baking wholesome loaves of golden goodness at home.
It’s a rewarding thing to do as our world descends into fear and uncertainty. Breadmaking soothes the nerves and it engages all the senses. It also only requires four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Indeed, few things in life are as comforting as a fine loaf of freshly baked bread.
This wholesome new trend reminds us that the simple things are often the most satisfying. The home baker can’t take all the credit, though, because the soil, sun and rain – and the farmer, miller and merchant – all contribute to each loaf.
Bread, then, is so much more than just food. It’s the fruit of the earth and a gift from God, because none of this would be possible without him. [i] Indeed, the Bible mentions bread almost 500 times.
In today’s first reading, Moses reminds the Israelites that man does not live on bread alone. It’s God who fed them manna in the desert, and it’s God who provides for all their needs. [ii]
This manna satisfies physical hunger only briefly, and must be eaten again. But the living bread Jesus offers in John’s Gospel today satisfies his disciples’ deepest desires forever. ‘I’m the living bread come down from heaven,’ he says, ‘the bread that gives eternal life’.
Then he adds, ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’. These words have startled some people, but Anthony Oelrich in his book Feeding on the Bread of Life says that Jesus is using them deliberately, to confront us with the dramatic absoluteness of his claim. [iii]
In the Hebrew culture ‘flesh and blood’ refers to the whole person. So, Jesus is inviting his followers to unite themselves with him by taking into themselves all that he is and does and says.
Approaching Jesus in the Bread of Life, Oelrich says, means being ready to consume the whole of his teaching, life, passion and death. It means a whole new way of living: no longer living our own lives, but living the life of Christ in us, changing us and transforming us into his very self.
And in describing the bread he offers as ‘my flesh for the life of the world’, Jesus is alluding to his death, in which he will sacrifice his human life so that we might share in his divine life.
In 2018, Pope Francis said that this bread of life, this sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, is given to us freely at the table of the Eucharist. Every time we take part in Holy Mass, he says, we anticipate heaven on earth, because from the Eucharistic food we learn what eternal life is. It’s to live for the Lord: ‘He who eats me will live because of me’ (Jn.6:57).
It’s not about material food, but about a living and life-giving bread which communicates the very life of God. By nourishing ourselves with this food, he says, we can enter into full harmony with the living Christ, who transforms us and prepares us for Heaven. [iv]
Now, every loaf of bread contains grains that have been harvested, gathered together and ground into flour. St Paul in our second reading uses this image to symbolise our unity in Christ, in which even the smallest of grains play an important role.
But the Eucharist isn’t just where we celebrate our union with Christ. Henri Nouwen says that the Eucharist also creates this unity. By eating from the same bread and drinking from the same cup, we become the body of Christ present in the world. And just as Christ becomes really present to us in the breaking of the bread, so we become really present to one another as brothers and sisters of Christ, members of the same body. [v]
However, this breaking of the bread is not just so that it may be shared. Jesus was ‘broken’ on the Cross before he could become our food. And while we do receive all his humanity and divinity in the Eucharistic bread, he actually comes to us broken and humbled.
We, who are broken and humbled by the challenges of our own lives, are nourished and strengthened through the brokenness of the Bread of Life.
Yes, bread is so much more than just food. The celebration of the Eucharist is at the heart of the life of the Church, and because we all share in the one Eucharistic bread, it’s the sign and the source of our unity.
But remember this: we can’t truly be united with Jesus without being united with each other.
That’s because Christ’s body is the Church, and whatever I do
to his body, his people, I do to him (Mt.25:40-45). [vi]
[i] This truth is beautifully reflected in our Offertory prayer at Mass: ‘Blessed are you, Lord of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you, fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life’.
[ii] Dr Laurie Woods (Australian Catholic University) says the name ‘manna’ probably comes from the question in Hebrew, ‘What is it?’ (‘Manu’). It’s mentioned in Num.11:7 as being like coriander seed that the Israelites ground and baked into cakes. Because it seemed to fall with the dew at night and was gathered in the morning, they called it ‘bread from heaven’.
[iii] Anthony Oelrich, Feeding on the Bread of Life. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2014:68.
[v] Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey. Darton Longman & Todd, London, 1996:314.
[vi] Peter Kreeft, Ask Peter Kreeft. Sophia Institute Press, Manchester NH, 2019:94.