My friend, the associate rector at the church I’d been attending, asked me three years ago to bake a loaf of communion bread for a baptism. Having grown up Roman Catholic, where there are strict rules about the baking and sharing of communion hosts, I had never before been asked to make communion bread. My friend knew that I love to bake bread and that celebrating communion is at the very heart of my spirituality. He also knew that I was willing to take on the challenge of baking a gluten-free loaf, as the rector of the church has Celiac disease and couldn’t even touch a loaf made of wheat. And so began my pursuit of a recipe.
The four small dark loaves I baked for the congregation represented a beginning for me. I’ve been asked to share the recipe, to bake more loaves for feast days and baptisms, and more recently, I’ve been asked to help lead an adult formation class on a theology of bread. In the class, we baked gluten-free boules and broke one together around an altar, where we watched steam rise from the bread freshly baked and torn into two halves, our delight and surprise was audible.
“We need a theology of bread,” Nurya Love Parish once told me. We, meaning the whole church. A comprehensive theology of bread would take many many volumes. There are endless paths to follow and meander: The way we grow and gather, our different words and meanings, the way we eat and share.
While I cannot offer a comprehensive theology of bread (yet!), I can share the talk I gave my class in hopes that it might begin to stir your own theological imagination. I’ve called it A (sorta) theology of baking bread, knowing that I’d like to explore this more, adding to include a theology of breaking bread as well.
Bread is Life: The beginning of a theology of baking bread
“Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on–since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” – Gen. 18:5-6
This passage is often used as a reflection on how Abraham shows us what it means to offer hospitality or what it means to invite God into your life, but my mind always goes to Sarah. I want to climb into the tent with her, offer my assistance as she dips measuring cups into the soft flour and kneads the dough with her strong hands and arms. And of course, I think about what it might smell like as she puts the bread over the fire to bake. The yeasty aromas coupled with the smokiness of the fire were probably mouthwatering. And the cakes would certainly make a tell-tale crackling sound as they cooled. Sarah probably made an extra cake for taste testing before offering the the loaves to their guests. Without commercial yeast, Sarah would have relied on a starter made of wild yeasts in the air. The bread was probably tangy thanks to the mature starter. The taste of honey also comes to mind.
I love to bake bread, because it’s a simple process that relies on fermentation, an ancient, possibly billions-of-years-old process common to all bacteria – perhaps one of the processes responsible for the origin of life on earth, and certainly a process shared among cultures across the globe to preserve the and, dare I say, even sometimes improve the flavor of earth’s bounty. Beer, wine, kefir, pickles, and krauts are all created thanks to fermentation.
Traditionally, four ingredients create what we call bread: water, yeast, salt, and flour, usually wheat.
Gluten-free breads follow this same formula but substitute a different grain (or grains) for the wheat and sometimes add ingredients to help bind the ingredients and/or assist with the rising process.
Two essential ingredients stand out:
Wheat (or other grain) must first be grown, harvested, and gathered. Wheat comes up frequently in Scripture. John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Unless you grew up on a farm (or got nerdy about bread as an adult), winnowing fork, threshing floor, granary, and chaff are words you probably have to look up. The chaff is like a shell or skin that is separated from the grain that is milled into flour.
I briefly attended a church as a teenager where the metaphors in this passage were misunderstood. The preacher likened Christians to the wheat and non-Christians to the chaff. It was a passage of scripture I struggled with as a child, fearing that those who I loved might burn in unquenchable fire. This seemed so incongruous with the rest of the good news of the gospels: Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry. Who were the chaff among his audiences?
As an adult I learned that the chaff is a part of the wheat itself, and that it is so light and insubstantial that in the harvesting process, it separates from the kernel, the heart of the wheat where all of the nutrients and germ–the “life stuff”–and is blown away like dust and burned by fire. With a little knowledge of basic agricultural practices, John the Baptist’s metaphor is so much more meaningful and instructive about what it means to follow Jesus.
You could write an entire theology just around the process of growing and harvesting wheat. It’s impossible to deep dive into a conversation around wheat, or any grain, without delving into ecology and sustainability, the food chain and how humans steward the land. You could explore how when the germ is separated during milling, flour has a longer shelf life, but loses most of its nutrients. Or what it means to not be able to consume or even touch wheat without becoming ill. From one simple variety of grass, there is enough to stimulate your theological imagination for years.
Yeast is another living organism that is essential for the process of baking bread. For thousands of years, bakers relied on the wild yeasts that live in the air, and created starters which they maintained in order to rise their breads. There are rumored starters today that are said to be hundreds of years old, passed down in families like precious heirlooms.
Today, most home bakers use commercial yeasts that make baking bread at home a little easier, though it’s worth it to keep a good starter around (or know someone who has one). And, the more often you bake bread in your own kitchen, the more wild yeasts you’ll have in the air, making your bread increasingly more distinctive, flavorful, and successful.
Here’s how yeast works: Activated by warm water, the yeast eat the sugars in the flour and then sort of “sweat” and “pass gas” as a result. The gas is what causes the bread to rise and the “sweat,” sometimes called “hooch” is what gives the bread flavor and aroma.
This right here is the transformative process of fermentation.
In order to transform flour, yeast, water, and salt into a loaf, you must do everything you can to keep the yeast happy and alive until it’s time to bake. The yeast continue to release that gas until in the oven, where they reach a temperature too hot and they die.
Norman Wirzba says that “eating is a matter of life and death.” It is in the baking and breaking of bread that we have an opportunity to experience that in a profound and spiritual way. Wheat is alive until harvested and milled. The yeast die under high heat. The ingredients transform into something else. The bread that emerges from the oven is something that it wasn’t before. It becomes bread, a food so substantial and nourishing that it can mean food itself. And by breaking and eating it, we are given life–in a practical sense, yes, but also spiritually.
Is it any wonder that Jesus multiplied loaves along with fish as one of his miracles that proclaimed the reign of God? Or that he frequently broke bread with his friends and followers, including on his last night on earth, when he said the bread he was breaking was his very own body, broken for us?
Bread–given, received, and shared–is life indeed.
Some questions for reflection:
(These are some of the questions I sent the class home with along with their loves of to-be-baked bread.)
Is baking and breaking bread a matter of life and death to you? Could it be?
Is there anything about the process of baking bread that surprises you or particularly speaks to you?
What is your experience of baking and breaking bread?
Why do you suppose bread is a metaphor for life?
Norman Wirzba on a theology of eating says, “Eating is fundamentally about establishing a life of communion.” What does communion look like (taste like, smell like, feel like) to you?
Wirzba also writes that he thinks that the Eucharistic table should transform our home dining tables. What do you think he means? What would a transformation of your own dining table mean for you?
Have you ever had an experience of communion that sticks out in your memory?
Have you ever been left out of a feast?
What does it mean or feel like to be fed? What does it mean to feed others?