Since my undergraduate days studying theology at St. John’s University, I have favored homemade eucharistic bread that, as much as possible within the narrow rubrical requirements, looks, tastes, and feels like real bread.
But here’s a true confession: until fairly recently, it has been for the wrong reasons. I’m not proud of this, but only recently have I come around to a true, inward appreciation for the symbolic value of “real” (you know what I mean) communion bread.
This past semester, teaching Christian Worship to undergrads, one of the texts I used was Bernard Cooke’s Sacraments and Sacramentality, which was new for me. And teaching Eucharist to grad students I used Ed Foley’s excellent From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist, which I’ve been through several times now in the classroom. Happily, however long in coming, something clicked for me.
First Cooke: he makes the point, about five different ways and about twenty five times, that symbols are real, that humans are symbol-makers, that to be human is to know and perceive symbolically. Then Foley: he reminds us that for most of the first millennium, leavened bread was used for the eucharistic celebration. Pope Gregory in the sixth century might well have used a large load of bread, broken into pieces for distribution, in St. Peter’s Basilica. Just let that sink in.
I’ve come to realize that, up until now, my reason for supporting thicker homemade bread over little factory-made hosts has been one of extrinsic obedience. It’s what the GIRM calls for. That, plus loyalty to the St. John’s way of doing things: it’s what the profs at St. John’s taught me and what the abbey does at daily Mass every day. It’s a principle of liturgical reform of the sort I should support. It marks that one is on the “right” side of liturgical reform.
At the meals with table reading in the abbey refectory during the Triduum, there are big round loaves of dark bread at each table. This year it struck me in a new way how powerful it is for a group of people to tear bread apart with their hands and share it with one another. And then I thought of Ed Foley’s delightful tale of historical reconstruction, “Jacob and Ruben,” at the end of chapter one of Age to Age. Ruben sat at table with his fellow Jews, blessed bread, and gave it for all at table to share. First century eucharist.
I came to realize that the powerfully human (and therefore profoundly sacred, I’m sure Cooke would say) bread-sharing experience of Jacob and Ruben was preserved in the church for centuries and centuries, even as the celebration became more formal, more ritualized, and for larger groups of people in large buildings.
I began to dream. Why homemade loaves in the abbey only at daily Masses with smaller congregations? Why not one huge loaf for every Sunday and feast day? Or if larger crowds demanded it could be more loaves, but still everyone would receive bread torn apart by hand from a large loaf. How cool would that be?
Not possible, the sacristans would say. You can’t estimate accurately how many loaves will be needed, since eucharistic ministers tear off pieces of varying sizes. Fine, I say: then consecrate way too much and let the remainder be consumed reverently after Mass. The end game here is to make sure that no one wrecks the whole thing by bringing in pre-consecrated factory hosts from the tabernacle.
Is it possible, I asked Br. Aelred, to make unleavened bread into a loaf that is 10 or 12 inches high? No, it turns out. Unleavened dough won’t bake into anything resembling bread unless the thickness is limited and the top is pricked. So my dream got reduced just a bit: for Sundays and bigger celebrations we could stack many flat loaves on top of each other.
In liturgical planning and in instructions ministers receive in the abbey, it’s long been a custom to talk about hosts in distinction to “substantial” bread, as in “it’ll be hosts today instead of substantial bread.” I cringe and think to myself that the hosts better be the substance of bread, or else we’re a dime short of a valid sacrament! But I hold back. Everyone knows what they mean.
And in a way, they’re right. The little hosts are the substance of bread only in the most minimal way. Eucharist with little hosts is substantially lacking. The substance of the symbol is hardly there. The substance of sharing is hardly there. The substance of union with others is hardly there. What is there, beyond a legalistic minimum, is the strong suggestion that God acts in the sacraments in “churchy” ways unrelated to the real lives and human experiences of churchgoers.
When Mass in the abbey has the little factory hosts, I certainly still believe that it is the true Body of Christ. I certainly still believe that Christ is uniting us to himself precisely by uniting us to one another. But my reception of Holy Communion comes with a bit of painful regret. Though I believe all that, there is little in the way of sacramental symbolism to suggest that any of that is really true.