Bread features a great deal in the Bible, in all kinds of ways, and has a significance that is both literal and symbolic. As one of the traditional staples of the human diet throughout human history, in its various forms – bread can, of course, be made from a range of different kinds of grain, and even (for example) potato flour, it readily lends itself as a symbol for that which is essential to sustaining human life. It certainly featured significantly in Israelite religion and in the stories that the Hebrew people told of their relationship with God.
Such stories range from the famous story in the book of Exodus of the Manna in the wilderness – the bread of heaven – that sustained the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering. In Genesis 14, the priest Melchizedek brought out bread and wine and blessed them in the presence of Abram. In the Jerusalem temple – the ‘bread of the presence’ or ‘show bread’ was kept as a reminder to the people of God’s presence with them, and it symbolised his role as both their provider and their sustainer.
And of course bread comes to have a particular resonance in the New Testament. Our second reading this evening which describes the preparations for the Last Supper – makes reference to the Passover as ‘the feast of unleavened bread’. And it was within that context that Jesus did something utterly extraordinary and startling, when he took bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it with his disciples, saying to them: take, eat this is my body that is given for you. ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ So much is encapsulated in that strange prophetic act: it speaks of Jesus’s giving of himself for them; of his forthcoming sacrificial death; of the sustenance that he gives to the souls of those who pledge to follow him on their journeys of faith, and so much more. It was Jesus who referred to himself, in John’s Gospel as ‘The Bread of Life’.
So I worry sometimes that some of the power of that symbolism is in danger of being lost in a culture such as our own, in which the superabundance of food of all kinds means that bread is merely one form of carbohydrate amongst countless others; and also (to introduce an additional thought) in which in an era of supermarket shopping, most of us live lives that are so remote from the realities and the processes of food production, that we have little sense of the sources of our food, let alone the labour and the technology that lies behind its appearance on the shelf. Yet another sign of how alienated we are from the resources of our planet, which we so readily take for granted simply because we never make the connection.
There is a wonderful poem by one of my favourite contemporary poets, David Scott, that is about the significance of bread – which not only touches on its eucharistic resonances – but also, in keeping with our focus on environmental concerns during this season of Lent, reminds us in a beautiful and thought provoking way, of how distant we have become from the land and its bounty. His poem, incidentally, takes me back to my own childhood, where all my summer holidays were spent on my grandparents’ farm, which was an old mill house – no longer functioning as such, but one of its massive millstones was still there. As you will hear, the poet also makes use of an ancient Anglo Saxon word – Hlaf – the word for unleavened bread, from which we derive the word loaf.
His poem is called, ‘A long way from bread’:
We have come so far from bread.
Rarely do we hear the clatter of the mill wheel;
see the flour in every cranny,
the shaking down of the sack, the chalk on the door,
the rats, the race, the pool,
baking day, and the old loaves:
cob, cottage, plaited, brick.
We have come so far from bread.
Once the crock said ‘BREAD’
and the bread was what was there,
and the family’s arm went deeper down each day
to find it, and the crust was favoured.
We have come so far from Bread.
Terrifying is the breach between wheat and table,
wheat and bread, bread and what goes for bread.
Loaves now come in regiments, so that loaf
is not the word. Hlaf
is one of the oldest words we have.
I go on about bread
because it was to bread
that Jesus trusted
the meaning he had of himself.
It was an honour for the bread
to be the knot in the Lord’s handkerchief
reminding him about himself. So,
O bread, breakable;
O bread, given;
O bread, a blessing;
count yourself lucky, bread.
Not that I am against wafers,
especially the ones produced under steam
from some hidden nunnery
with our Lord crucified into them.
They are at least unleavened, and fit the hand,
without remainder, but it is still
a long way from bread.
Better for each household to have its own bread,
daily, enough and to spare,
dough the size of a rolled towel,
for feeding angels unawares.
Then if the bread is holy,
All that has to do with bread is holy;
Board, knife, cupboard,
So that the gap between all things is closed
In our attention to the bread of the day.
I know that ‘man cannot live on bread alone’.
I say, let us get the bread right.