Our contemporary life is often deeply removed from reality. We eat like royalty, travel like magicians, taking everything for granted. In 1991, I was serving in a parish (Anglican) that sponsored a Russian family for immigration. The Soviet Union had fallen, but little had changed in their homeland. I recall taking them to their first visit to an American grocery store with their translator. It was like a dream to them. Their first question startled me, “Is all of this for sale?” They had an idea that it might just be “for show.” I was humbled as I realized how much I took for granted.
This distance between us and the simple reality of our lives makes it difficult for us to understand the gospel. When the Scriptures speak of bread, we have no feeling for the word. Bread is just something we eat (or avoid). Today it is something we debate and fear (gluten). But it means very little to us.
The context of the Scriptures is not necessarily a context of scarcity, but it is certainly a context where drought produces famine and seasons determine what is eaten. According to paleontologists, human civilization begins with the cultivation of grain. Hunters and gatherers cannot sustain life on the level of a town. Grain was as essential as fire in the history of humanity.
This distance, it seems to me, also interferes with our comprehension of the sacraments. In my Anglican years I recall a common clergy joke about the wafers used in the liturgy. It was said that there were two acts of faith: to believe that the bread became the Body of Christ, and also to believe that the wafer was actually bread. I would extend this even to contemporary Orthodoxy. The bread is obviously bread (it is baked in the parish and is leavened). But our hearts are deeply removed from even its “breadly” reality.
Bread has been called the “staff of life.” In ancient Greece and Rome the bread ovens were often public, maintained at city expense. The baking of bread was thus something of a community event (a custom that probably stretched deep into time). It was the essential food of the ancient diet, the primary form of charity. In the early Church, members brought loaves of bread as an offering. The deacons chose the best loaves for the liturgy. The rest were shared afterwards or distributed to the poor.
In Orthodox Churches of the Russian tradition, small loaves (prosphora) are baked and given to the priest with a list of names to be remembered. The priest removes particles from the loaves and places them on the diskos along with the Eucharistic offering. The names and loaves are returned to the faithful who take them home and consume them – often as part of their morning prayers. It is a Eucharistic connection that continues throughout the week.
Few would desire to return to the dangers of famine. Nevertheless, we would do well to return to a proper attitude towards our food. We should eat slowly and thankfully, with a mind towards the goodness of God and the labor that has produced our bounty.
In my recent trip to England I was struck by the amount of farmland. Everywhere outside of villages, the land was given to farming. The wheat fields in particular were “white for the harvest.” America has seen the shrinking of its farmland over the entire course of its history. Recent decades have been especially hard. It is possible for children to grow up with no awareness of farms or where the food they eat comes from. There is clearly a diminishment of our humanity in all of this.
Eucharistic living is marked by the giving of thanks. It is also marked by the presence of bread. Bread is as essential to the Eucharist as is Christ Himself. In His great condescension, the Lord of the Harvest has united Himself with the harvest itself.
“Lord, give us this bread always.”
O God, our God, Who didst send the Heavenly Bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord and God Jesus Christ, to be our Savior, Redeemer, and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us: Bless this Offering, and accept it upon Thy heavenly altar. Remember those who offered it and those for whom it was offered, for Thou art good and lovest mankind. Preserve us blameless in the celebration of Thy divine mysteries. For sanctified and glorified is Thy most honorable and majestic name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
From the Service of Preparation