For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:33-35, Eucharistic Gospel for 28 April 2020)
I eat a lot of bread. As a keen baker, there’s almost always a loaf lying about, something in the oven, or a tin or two (at least) that needs to be washed up. [Editor’snote: a “tin” is a bread loaf pan.] This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy a varied diet – for I do, indeed, enjoy food much more generally – but bread forms a central part of at least one or two meals each day on average, plus numerous snacking opportunities at all times. Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods known to mankind. Its history is practically concomitant with the history of our species, and we know it certainly played a central role in the diet and life of those living around Jesus’ time, even if references to bread could include almost any preparation made with flour and water. It would be easy for us today to underestimate the importance of bread for someone living in the social circles to which Jesus ministered and, as far as we know, spent much of his own life. While ‘man cannot live by bread alone’, it almost certainly provided at least some nutrition to the many who struggled to find enough food to feed themselves and their families.
Bread has also become something of a recurrent theme during this period of lockdown, certainly in much of the Western world at least. Many of us have turned to baking. Not as a dietary necessity per se, but mostly just to fill at least some of those hours we now find ourselves with while cooped up at home. Several within our own congregation have spoken of difficulties in obtaining flour and/or yeast; some have turned to sourdough starters, either as a remedy to this, or just as an additional means of entertainment. I, myself, managed to resurrect my own starter, Sylvie, who had been in self-isolation in my fridge since December, but who has since burst forth with effervescent enthusiasm.
It is not, however, only in our culinary endeavours that bread has given us pause for thought. As we edge ever further into this lockdown, still with no clear idea of when it might end and, even when it does, at what point we will be fully able to gather as a complete community, the absence of bread, and its inseparable partner wine, in our currently-suspended celebration of the Eucharist is becoming ever more apparent. Many churches have found different ways of dealing with the challenge presented by social distancing when it comes to the Eucharist. Some believe that in offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist, the priest, whether alone or accompanied, does so on behalf of their own congregation and, in turn, the world. Thus, it matters not whether or not this is done in an empty church, and whether or not this is relayed either live or in subsequent broadcast to be witnessed by the whole world. Others have seen this as a period of fasting, an extended Lenten observance perhaps, where not only do we refrain from worldly pleasures, but we too refrain from that ultimate celebration of the saving power of the Eucharist, knowing the joy it will bring when we can once more gather around one bread and one cup to share in that sacred mystery.
The purpose of this reflection is not to offer a solution to this problem, nor indeed to reveal what I think we might do in response, partly because I do not have the answer. It is a question that is being asked more readily now amid our own community, and it will, I am sure, provide for much discussion and thought as we seek to gather our shared, yet not always aligned, views on what this miraculous celebration really means to us as Christians, as Anglicans, and as members of Christ Church. The reality is, that even when we can reopen our doors, the Eucharist and social distancing will not likely form a match made in heaven, and so the question of what this means for us and how we can wrestle with the theological issues that it presents will be ongoing for quite some time.
As a church musician and an organist, there have been numerous times when, for whatever reason, the consumption of the elements has proved too complicated to be practical without disrupting the wider liturgical flow. Organs are rarely located sensibly in churches, especially in Europe where they didn’t even exist when many of the buildings were constructed. Coupled with the need to support the liturgy for the benefit of the community gathered, I regularly have to forgo consuming the elements to ensure the smooth-running of the service. I am fully aware that almost every church would find a way of making these available to me, even once the service is over, and so it is partly personal choice that I follow this practice. However, I genuinely do not believe that Christ is any less present to me in a service where I do not consume, nor do I believe that I am any less a participant than anyone else because of this. This isn’t to say that we as Christians, who are ourselves the one gathered body of Christ, should be prevented from taking the Eucharist per se, but that, at least for me, sharing of communion takes many forms.
When I was at Divinity School, my liturgy tutor made a passing comment about the Eucharist. She said that one of the most bizarre things about Christian ritual is that a whole bunch of strangers (probably not literally, but this is often the case to some degree) gather together in a building and share a meal. For in celebrating the Eucharist we remember that meal that Jesus shared with his disciples and, in turn, we remember too the meals shared by the Israelites in secret and in fear before their Exodus from Egypt. We perhaps overlook the overwhelming generosity that sharing a meal meant to Jesus and his followers, and especially given their social class. Many of us probably know that having friends over for dinner (I’m sure we can still remember what that was like) is a costly affair, one where we aren’t seeking to show off but, nevertheless, we wish to show our generosity, our love, and our charity for our friends, our families, and for those we care. So too, in the Eucharist, not only do we share in the sacred mystery of the liturgical celebration, but we also share and rejoice in our charity, in our neighbourliness, and in our pursuit to give to those who need most, extending the never-ending outpouring of Jesus’ love on the cross. I do not want you to think that I do not value Communion. The Eucharist is a beautiful and fundamental part of our faith, even if our own Book of Common Prayer makes clear that, as Anglicans at least, scripture is all that is required for full salvation, and Jesus himself is clearly referring to bread as spiritual rather than literal food.
Some of you might ask: but without the bread and the wine, how is Christ present to us not only in our celebration, but also in the world? I can only recall our gospel reading from Sunday on the road to Emmaus and what Jesus said (or what I essentially think he said): ‘Fools, who do you think has been walking with you all this time?’
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.
— Jonathan White