The Sweat of Our Brow and the Bread of Heaven

Over at First Things, Jane Sloan Peters has a lovely piece entitled “Bread Eternal,” that is, among other things, a glorious hymn to and theological reflection on bread.

Her essay prompts in me the thought that before we can appreciate the Eucharist, it helps to have some appreciation of bread. Indeed, some have argued that, in cultures where bread is not commonly eaten, other staple foods should be used for the Eucharist. I’m not ready to endorse that view, since I think the Eucharist links us to the historically specific practice of Jesus and not just to the universal human consumption of staple foods, but I do think that in reflecting on the bread of heaven we ought to do so against the backdrop of the role played by earthly bread in our lives: how the practice of eating bread links us to our ancestors, how the process of making bread might be thought of as a kind of contemplative poiesis, how bread typically comes in a form that suggests it is to be shared, often by being broken. It is hard—maybe impossible—to know what the Eucharist is if you don’t know what bread is.

Peters also notes in her essay the mention of bread in the “curse” of Adam in Genesis: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.” She does not go on to make much of this, but it struck me that for many people the struggle for daily bread is a sign of a fundamental alienation. For all the glories of this food, the work by which we obtain it is a perpetual reminder of the curse that follows upon our abandonment of God. The insecurity that attends our quest for bread shows us that something is not right with the world. We are fed with “the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5); we eat “the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2). Our earthly bread always represents toil and scarcity.

But there is another sort of bread: the bread of heaven. It is the bread that miraculously appears for the Israelites’ to gather as they journeyed through the wilderness, bread that they did not have to wrest from a ground afflicted by thorns and thistles but received from God as a gift. It is, above all, Jesus, the true bread of heaven now sacramentally present to us in the Eucharistic gift. This is the bread for which we have not labored, nor even gathered, but which gives itself to us: this is my body.

It is sometimes said that when our gifts of bread and wine are presented in the Eucharist, they represent our life and labors. And this is true. But we should not forget that the bread we bring is not the fruit of our triumph, but of our defeat; it is a sign of our cursed, anxious toil. This is the sign that Christ accepts from us and transforms into himself. Summing up the entire economy of salvation, in the Eucharist Christ takes our bread of sweat and tears and gives back to us the bread of heaven.


  1. I let my Godson (now happily a member of Hare Krishna) express the ‘vox pop’ on this.

    Before he made his first Communion, after going up to the altar with his mother for Holy Communion, he used to ask when he could eat ‘that biscuit.’

    The thought that it might be some sort of ‘bread’ had not occurred to him. Even an explanation that it was bread failed to convince him.

    There is a real problem here!


    1. Alan you raise a very good point. In distributing Communion one morning, which all came from one large “host,” a communicant said, “I don’t want that bit. I want one that looks like a communion host.” We are currently involved in delicate negotiations with our sacristan to change from small little plasticky white hosts to larger thicker and more bread looking hosts. The argument against? The larger ones cost more. There is indeed a real problem!

      1. Part of the problem is practical. In the UK thicker ‘hosts’ (great and small) seem to have an even surface on both sides, but to be aerated in the middle. Sacristy people, because they don’t want to be caught short, tend to order these in industrial quantities. The result is that by the time we actually use them at Mass, they are stale and taste like cardboard. About a year ago I actually had complaints from a couple of parishioners about this. So not only do they not look like anything resembling bread (‘have the appearance of food’ – the ‘accidents’ of bread ???) but they have a sour taste to them. When spiritual writers of a certain sort write about the ‘sweetness’ of the Blessed Sacrament, I have to smile.

        The tendency also, particularly in larger churches, is to have hundreds in permanent reserve in the Tabernacle. This compounds the problem.

        Paradoxically, the ‘hosts’ that suffer least from staleness in my experience are the really old fashioned thin white ones.

        We went through a period in the later years of last century when people started making eucharistic bread themselves. Many exotic recipes appeared, and the results, at least the ones I encountered, were dreadful: hard or leathery, impossible to swallow, etc.

        Bread is a tasty, aromatic and beautiful food. Except in the place where it should be all those things when it takes on its changed identity as the true and living Body of Christ.


  2. Thank you, Fritz, for this rich reflection. It made me think in a mliion different directions; here are just three that might be of interest:
    First, I have argued, on good evidence I think, that bread-making in Jesus’ time and place was a) a labor typically in women’s hands, b) often done communally in communal ovens, and c) time-consuming. I think it says something that Jesus took upon himself to be bread, in that context.
    Second, I am in the process of editing papers from the 2018 ISM Liturgy Conference (to be published by Liturgical Press), and the volume has a fabulous paper by Andrew McGowan on the ancient (Greco-Roman) economic realities surrounding bread and on what that means for early Christian eucharistic practices. Stay tuned.
    Third, I have been pondering the text of Teilhard de Chardin’s 1923 “Mass on the World” over the last few days. Bereft of the eucharistic elements of bread and wine and a consecrated altar, Teilhard envisioned himself presiding on the “altar of the world,” with the host to be consecrated extending into the whole universe. In this presiding, the cosmos itself became the all-encompassing host, to be consecrated as the “sacrament of the world.” I want to think about that more, as does David Grummet in his important book “Material Eucharist” (OUP).
    So much from me. Thanks again.

    1. Teresa, thanks for the thoughts. I look forward to reading McGowan’s piece and suspect that your three points about bread making in Jesus’ day might find their way into some future homily.

  3. On the subject of the bread of heaven and the sweat of one’s brow, see also Enrique Dussel, “The Bread of the Eucharistic Celebration as a Sign of Justice in the Community,” in Can We Always Celebrate the Eucharist? eds. Mary Collins and David Power (New York: Seabury, 1982), , 56-88.

  4. It’s getting to be that time of year again, I saw “Easter” candy in Target this morning, and a big display of matzo and unleavened foods in supermarket yesterday. (Though to be fair, my city has a good amount of observant Jews living in it.) People rail on about how the hosts “don’t look or taste like bread.” But at the same time, neither does the matzo that’s eaten at Passover, nor does what is trying to pass for “home-made unleaven bread” that I’ve encountered in a couple churches. Unleavened bread will never look or taste like bread that we eat on a daily basis. That should be part of the catechesis children and adults get. If you want something that looks and tastes like that bread at Holy Communion, become Orthodox.

    1. One usually doesn’t see Passover matzah on the shelves in the US Northeast until the week of Purim. Which will be in mid-March. The best version (the round, warped and dark versions of shmurah) is something I’ve not seen on local shelves for about a decade.

      Pink mid-February candy went on the shelves the day after Christmas.

      1. I tried to ignore the pink/red stuff with hearts the day or so into Christmas. LOL.

        As I said, my city has a substantial observant presence. The larger of the two synagogues is Orthodox. Big families. My supermarket has a huge kosher section, including matzo all year long, as well as a separate meat cooler of kosher meat. And a separate one of halal meat too!

  5. All well and good. When Jesus took the bread and the wine and instructed His followers to share this meal with one another, he placed an article of love and strength into the hands of humans as a connection with heaven and the Presence of God.

    In our human journey through history, this action has been restricted by edicts or what that bread can look like, taste like, and be made like. The same holds for the ingredients of the wine. Maybe this was all meant out of a generous action for quality control.

    And in that same course of human history, the ability to receive this bread and wine has equally been controlled. If the de Chardin encompassing Eucharist of the cosmos were to become an earthly reality, then the numbers of those included in the reception of the Body of Christ would have to grow and the walls to reception placed up by those in power would have to drop.

    Until, then, the powerful will argue about ingredients and miss the words of “take and eat, take a drink.”

  6. As someone who loves both food and ancient Roman history, I recently got a cookbook that reproduces recipes from ancient sources. In it I encountered a staple of the Roman (and Greek) kitchen called “tracta.” These are used both layered in various dishes with cheeses and such, or crumbled into stews and sauces as a thickener. Tracta are made by soaking fine semolina in water, then kneading it with flour into a dough which is pressed into discs and dried. These can be stored in the pantry for a long time until used. Of course this description sounded a bit familiar. It makes me wonder if tracta might be the origin of our communion wafers rather than matzot. It certainly makes unconsecrated wafers an easy substitute in ancient Roman cooking.

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