Bread: Becoming Who We Are

[Sermon from the opening service in Marquand Chapel for Yale Divinity School's  Summer Study 2017]

Tomb of Senet, 12th dynasty Egypt (c. 2000 BCE)
Aidan Kavanagh OSB of blessed memory, who taught some of you here in times past and who is otherwise still fondly remembered in this place, was alleged to have said, of the familiar eucharistic wafer bread of his Roman Catholic (and often of my Anglican) tradition that the problem was not so much believing it was the body of Christ, but believing it was bread.

But try this for comparison:
A woman of forty, but who looked as old as seventy, went up to the priest after Mass and said sorrowfully: "Father, I went to communion without going to confession first." "How come, my daughter?" asked the priest. "Father," she replied, "I arrived rather late, after you had begun the offertory. For three days I have had only water and nothing to eat; I'm dying of hunger. When I saw you handing out the hosts, those little pieces of white bread, I went to communion just out of hunger for that little bit of bread! The priest's eyes filled with tears. He recalled the words of Jesus: "My flesh [bread] is real food... whoever feeds on me will draw life from me" (John 6:55, 57). [Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (1987), p. 1] You have various good reasons for being here this week. Some of you may be driven by intellectual curiosity. Others may be fulfilling expectations for professional development. Some of you may be trying on the possibility of more study and of being with us at other times of the year.

These are all good reasons to be here. Let me suggest however that there should be, and is, underlying any and all of these something more like hunger than like curiosity, or the virtue of topping up credentials. We all need to be here, in ways we may not completely understand, and may come to understand better while we are here.

What lies beneath must be somehow about hunger. I mean this in two senses:

Our own hunger, in this environment of privilege, is likely to be a spiritual or metaphorical or existential hunger.

However I was not merely offering that story about literal hunger above to spiritualize it; I also mean this literally. Our own hungers or needs cannot be addressed in isolation; part of what we need is connection, and the capacity to feed and to be with and fed by others. Literal hunger and what it connotes - injustice, division, exploitation - is not merely a useful metaphor for spiritual issues, but a spiritual issue itself. Mohandas Gandhi once said: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

So we seek to be fed and to feed, to give and receive, in our deepest selves which may sometimes be our outer physical selves too.

In the Gospel we have heard there is a parable about bread:
And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ (Luke 13:20-21). The NRSV doesn’t get this quite right, because of using the term “yeast.” “Yeast” in the sense we know it, the extract from brewing processes added to bread to raise it, is mostly a recent phenomenon and was not available in first-century Palestine. The word Greek  zumos here refers to “leaven,” which would typically have been fermented dough, kept aside from one batch ready to start the next. So the character of “leaven” is mysteriously related to the flour it will raise; it is not a foreign substance, nor does it come from a completely different source, but is a form of the flour itself, since flour mixed with water ferments and becomes leaven. This is why at Passover, when Jewish households dispose of their leaven, they focus not on “yeast” (which after all is present in the wine of the Seder table anyway) but on flour, that always has in it the capacity to become leaven.

This mystery of likeness and unlikeness links the parable of the leaven with that of the mustard seed that precedes it: in both cases, a remarkable change takes place, but in fact the seed and the leaven both come from the “other” with which they are contrasted. The contrast hides a deep affinity.

The parable suggests something not just about change but about a transformation mysteriously related to what and who we already are. It suggests that our quest is not merely to fill our bellies or those of others, spiritually or materially, but to be changed - to be transformed, to become bread that fills, even to become leaven that transforms others.

In his Sermon 272 (preached at Pentecost in 408CE) Augustine of Hippo addressed a group of the newly baptized, who in the manner of the ancient Church were not told quite what they would experience in the mystery of the sacraments before they underwent them. Pointing to the eucharistic elements now placed on the altar, he asks about bread:

But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: "The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body." (1 Cor. 10.17) Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. "One bread," he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the "one body," formed from many? Remember: bread does not come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were "ground." When you were baptized, you were "leavened." When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were "baked." Be what you see; receive what you are.

May this week of reflection remind you that our bodies as well as our souls are spiritual issues. May it feed you, and help you to feed others. May it grind, leaven, and bake you, as you may each need. May it transform you, so you may be leaven for others.


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