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There is a Jewish folk tale which tells the story of two men, Shimon and Zev, who went out from their village to work one day in the forest. As they were on their way, they walked past the house of the village fortune teller. When the fortune teller saw them go by, he said nothing. But, in the way of fortune tellers, he had one of those flashes of insight which revealed to him that Zev would die in the forest that day. Now, this fortune teller was quite good at his arcane craft, and so he was greatly surprised to see both men return to the village that evening, alive and well.

The fortune teller had been so certain that his vision would be fulfilled, that he asked Zev to take him out into the forest where he and Shimon had been working. There, he thought, he might find some clue to the miraculous reversal of Zev's fortune.  When they came to the place where the two men had been cutting wood, the fortune teller noticed a few crumbs of bread by a log at the edge of the clearing. "What is this?" he inquired. "Oh," said Zev, "this is where we ate our lunch. But, you see, Shimon had forgotten to bring his lunch. He was going to return home, but I gave him some of mine." Then the fortune teller understood that it was because of this act of charity that Zev's life had been spared, and he said to him, "Your God has high regard for a little piece of bread."

In its original context, this story is an illustration of the value of a simple act of kindness, of the importance of living our lives in righteousness and love. But stories often communicate meaning on several levels, and this story may also be seen to have a remarkable Christian dimension. For Christians believe in a Savior who was born in Bethlehem, the "house of bread," and who gave to his church a little piece of bread by which they are assured that their lives are spared.  As ordinary bread is the staff of earthly life, God has given bread from heaven to sustain us to eternal life.  Indeed, he has such regard for a little piece of bread that he condescends not only to give but to be the Bread of Life. 

Furthermore, "a little piece of bread" has been at the heart of the common experience of Christians from the very beginning:  at the Last Supper, in a house in a village called Emmaus when the risen Lord appeared to his disciples, in private homes and basilicas, in catacombs and prison camps, and, of course, in parish churches around the world.  As Dom Gregory Dix reminds us in a magisterial passage at the end of his book, The Shape of the Liturgy,

For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and every country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need.... And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei–the holy common people of God. (p.744)

The bread that has been used in this defining sacrament has taken different forms at different times and places.  At the Last Supper, accepting the Synoptic Gospels tradition that it was the Feast of the Passover, the bread which Jesus and the disciples used was unleavened bread.  When the disciples at Emmaus recognized the risen Jesus "in the breaking of the bread", the bread would certainly have been unleavened, for even by the Johannine dating of the Passion, the Feast of Unleavened Bread had begun and no leaven could be eaten for the weeklong duration of the feast.  Unleavened bread for Passover is to be made under rather specific conditions.  It is to be a plain mixture of flour and water, baked as soon as possible after mixing to ensure that there is no chance even for natural leavening to take place.  While Paul's assertion that "Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us" is a proclamation of the Gospel message, not a directive about Eucharistic practice, we may reasonably assume that at least in early Jewish-Christian circles the bread of the Eucharist would have been unleavened.

However, as the Gospel spread through the Gentile world, the Jewish context began to fade and customs regarding the bread of the Eucharist became more varied.  The use of leavened bread was accepted in many places.  In time, local usage settled on one kind of bread or another, and prevailing custom settled into fixed practice.  Throughout Eastern Orthodoxy, with some notable exceptions (e.g., the Armenian Church), leavened bread, stamped with sacred symbols, is used.  In the West, unleavened bread (called "hosts," from the Latin hostia, "sacrificial victim") is usual, though not absolutely required.  At the English Reformation, leavened bread became the norm in the Church of England.  The rubrics of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) direct that

For aduoyding of all matters and occasyon of dyscencyon, it is mete that the breade prepared for the Communion, bee made, through all thys realme, after one sort and fashion:  that is to say, unleauened, and rounde, as it was afore, but without all maner of printe, and somethyng more larger and thicker than it was, so that it may be aptly deuided in diuers pieces:  and every one shall be deuided in two pieces, at the leaste, or more....

Just three years later, the second Prayer Book issued in the reign of Edward VI established a new usage:

And to take away the supersticion, whiche any person hathe, or myghte haue in the bread and wyne, it shall suffyse that the bread bee such, as is usuall to bee eaten at the Table wyth other meates, but the best and purest wheate bread, that conueniently maye be gotten.

A slightly revised version of this rubric was retained in the 1662 BCP which is still the authorized Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England.  However, the Ritualist Movement of the 19th century reintroduced "wafer bread" (unleavened hosts) and eventually prevailed in its struggle to be allowed this and other traditional liturgical practices.  Indeed, as these Ritualist practices became more widely accepted, the pendulum swung back to a preference for unleavened wafers throughout Anglicanism.  Nevertheless, in matters of this sort, and where law is lacking or lax, a pendulum rarely stops swinging, and leavened bread is again found at some Anglican Eucharists, as well as in the Roman Church.

From the earliest times, although nothing more than "a little piece of bread" (and, of course, a bit of wine) was necessary for the Liturgy, its importance has dictated that the bread be baked from the finest wheat available.  Even the 1552 BCP, with its clear reaction against Roman Catholic Eucharistic theology and practice, insists that only the "best and purest wheate bread, that conueniently maye be gotten" is to be used.  In the 16th century, such a requirement would have been understood to mean bread made with the finest white flour.  Modern folk, on the other hand, recognize the value and goodness of the parts of the grain which are separated from white flour.  Some would undoubtedly argue that whole wheat bread would be the "best" and possibly even the "purest", and so whole wheat bread and whole wheat hosts are now widely accepted, used, and even preferred.  In addition to flour, water, and yeast, other ingredients may be included (such as oil, salt, sugar, etc.) but, until recently, it was the rule that the matter of the sacrament must be essentially wheat bread.  (The editors are well-aware that allergies to gluten and other substances found in wheat bread, as well as the issue of enculturation, have introduced new dimensions to the question of what ingredients may be used.  It is not within the scope of this particular article to deal with these issues in detail.  We simply note their significance and register our intention to address them properly and sympathetically at a later time.)

Byzantine mosaic at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, traditional site of the miracle of the loaves and fish.  Note the crosses on the loaves of bread in the basket.

While "a little piece of bread" is all that is needed, and both leavened and unleavened bread have been used in various times and places, it is not just the recipe that has varied, however slightly, over the centuries.  It was probably inevitable that bread would be "dressed up" in various ways.  Both leavened and unleavened bread can be shaped and marked and stamped.  Loaves or wafers may be round, square, or even other shapes.  They may be large or small, plain or marked.

The loaf or host itself can convey an important symbolic message simply by the way in which it is shared.  The 1549 rubric calls attention to the fact that breaking the bread is desirable, even though there is no rubric in that book indicating when it should be broken.  Later Prayer Books direct that the bread be broken in connection with the Institution narrative, placing the emphasis on the breaking itself and suggesting that the meaning of the act is simply conformity with the actions of our Lord at the Last Supper.  In Jewish custom, breaking and blessing are closely connected:  the tradition requires that a blessing be recited at the ritual breaking of bread at the beginning of a meal.  It is clearly our Lord's purpose not only to break bread but to share it.  Unless a loaf is very small, it must be broken in order to be eaten.  Jewish tradition does not require that broken bread be shared, though it often is.  In any case, the narrative is clear that Jesus gave a portion of the loaf which he broke to each of the disciples. 

One of the primary meanings the Church derives from this act is described in a modern hymn which, in turn paraphrases a second century text known as the Didache (the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles):  "As grain, once gathered on the hillsides, was in this broken bread made one, so from all lands thy Church be gathered into thy kingdom by thy Son."  In other words, there is particular value and meaning in using a single loaf of bread.  A Eucharistic anthem says it in this way:  "One body are we, for though many we share one bread." (The Hymnal 1982, S 167, et al.)  A single leavened loaf of bread may be the most effective way to convey this symbolism.  Very large wafers which can be broken into many pieces can also accomplish this purpose.  On the other hand, it may not be practical to make a single loaf large enough to provide bread for a very large congregation.  In that case, several loaves may be needed.  Some will find that the longstanding western custom of having individual hosts for all of the communicants is an easier way to ensure that there is sufficient bread for everyone.  It is also more tidy, leaving fewer crumbs of consecrated bread to round up and consume.

Large unleavened host, scored for breaking into many pieces for communion.

Marking symbols on the bread is another way to convey meaning.  A plain cross is the easiest mark to impress on bread and can serve a practical, as well as a symbolic purpose, making it easier to break the bread into relatively uniform pieces.  The marking may be done either before or during baking.  Unleavened bread, may be scored with a sharp implement before baking.  Or it may be baked between hot irons and, if the irons are incised with patterns, the hosts can be imprinted with elaborate designs.  Leavened bread is a more difficult medium to work with, but with the right tools and technique, amazing things can be done, as may be seen in this website about making bread for the Orthodox Divine Liturgy:  The Holy Tradition of Prosphora Baking.

Bread is not only one of the means by which God gives himself to us, it is also one of the means by which we give ourselves to God.  In modern times, an uninformed observer would be likely to conclude that the principal action of the Offertory of the Eucharist is to collect money.  The money collected is one aspect, and in a market society a potent one, of our offering of ourselves to God.  However, the primary symbol of that offering, at least at the Eucharist, is the bread and wine.  In ancient times, it was, in fact, bread and wine, that the people brought to church to offer at the Eucharist, and the clergy used a portion of their offerings for the Eucharist.  Later, the making of the bread was reserved to clergy, monastics, or other people specially appointed for this work.  Now, the bread is often made commercially.

Offertory processions in which members of the congregation carry bread and wine to the altar are a step in the right direction of restoring the symbolic prominence of the bread and wine as the principal symbols of our offering of ourselves.  However, in many churches, this symbol continues to be a mixed one when, for supposed practical reasons, the bread and wine are brought forward before the money is collected.  The integrity of the symbol is more effectively communicated when all of the offerings are presented at the same time.  This may add two or three minutes to the length of the service--two or three minutes which pale in significance to the essential meaning of the act, the offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies, in the mystical exchange which culminated in the offering of Calvary.

Another way of restoring the connection between bread and the oblations of the people is to involve members of the congregation in making the bread which is used at the Eucharist.  Here are three recipes, one for leavened bread and two for unleavened bread. 

Priory Altar Bread

7/8 cup lukewarm water
3 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 packet dry yeast
2  2/3 cup sifted flour

Measure water into mixing bowl, add yeast, stir until dissolved. Stir in honey, oil, salt. Add flour--add with the hands and mix it in completely. If the flour does not completely dampen, add a tablespoon or more of water. Turn dough onto a very lightly floured board and--VERY IMPORTANT--knead dough thoroughly for 5 minutes. After kneading, return dough to bowl, cover with a warm damp cloth. Allow it to rise for 1-1½ hours in a warm place. It should double in bulk.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured board and knead for a moment. Roll the dough out to 1/4" thickness and cut into rounds with various sized cans, depending on the size of the congregation to be communicated. For example, a loaf cut by a small-sized coffee can (11.5 oz.) should be enough to communicate 20-30 people.  Press a line across the dough with the blade of a knife (not cutting through) so that the loaf may be easily divided into quarters at the Altar. Transfer to a very lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake in a pre-heated oven (350F) for 10-12 minutes. Loaves may be sealed and frozen until needed.  When properly made this recipe produces a bread that is smooth and breaks easily, leaving a minimum of crumbs.


Communion Hosts

1 cup milk
1/2 cup honey or cane syrup
2 sticks butter
3 cups unbleached flour
2 cups whole wheat flour

Combine milk, honey, and butter.  Heat until smooth.  Add to combined flours, knead lightly, place in plastic bag.  Pull off small amounts, press flat in white flour and run through pasta machine, first at widest setting, next at middle, and last on narrowest.  Place sheets on ungreased baking pans.  Warm in 350 degree oven for 30 seconds.  Remove and press (not cut) circles with cutter.  (Shot glass works well.)  Bake until lightly browned (crisp to the touch), about 5-7 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool.  Pinch out hosts and store in freezer bags in freezer.

From the Altar Guild of St. James' Church, Alexandria


Unleavened Altar Bread

4 cups plus 2  2/3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1/4 cup plus 3  2/3 tablespoons honey
1 egg yolk
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup plus 2  2/3 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of salt

Add egg yolk to the flour.  Then add honey and oil.  Mix well.

Add lukewarm water slowly.  (Add more water if necessary, but dough should be neither very wet nor very dry.)  The most effective way of mixing the dough is to knead it by hand.

Roll the dough to a thickness of 1/2 inch or less and cut into circles with cans. Slash into sixths with a razorblade or very sharp knife to facilitate breaking the finished loaves.

Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 350 degrees until golden brown. Turn the loaves after 15 minutes.

An old Nashotah House recipe


Lammas Day

Every Eucharist is a celebration of bread and, more specifically, the Bread which came down from heaven, Jesus Christ.  But bread itself is the theme of at least two traditional feast days, Corpus Christi, on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and Lammas Day, August 1st.  In Year B of the Eucharistic Lectionary of the Episcopal Church in the US, the Gospels appointed for four Sundays in August are drawn from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which the teaching and signs Jesus gives relate specifically to bread.  The Gospel for the Sunday nearest the 1st of August in Year A is Saint Matthew's account of the feeding of the five thousand.  These Gospels recall the feast and season of Lammastide.  Lammas Day, August 1st, was the day when the wheat harvest began.  It was the custom to take some of the first grain which was harvested and bake it into loaves which were presented at the altar and blessed.  The word "Lammas" derives from the Saxon Hlaf-masse, or "loaf mass."  Like offerings of the first fruits in the Old Testament, this was a harvest festival that gave thanks to God for his bounty, and also prayed for the success of this and succeeding harvests of other crops.

The origins of the day, no doubt, are pagan.  It was the custom in pre-Christian Europe to offer loaves to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, on her feast day, which was August 1st.  The Christianization of the festival was, like the "baptism" of many other non-Christian customs, a recognition of a certain truth, namely, that all we have is indeed a gift, a blessing from God.  When the true Source of blessing is known, it is right to give thanks where thanks is due.  The old gods may be discarded, but the customs relating to them often had a proper, if somewhat misdirected intent.  The themes of thanksgiving and stewardship are just as apt in the new dispensation as in the old, perhaps even more so.

Lammas Day is still listed in the Calendar of the Church of England, but it is a day which mostly goes unnoticed.  It seems never to have been listed in the American Prayer Book.  It might fairly be asked whether such a feast can have any relevance to an urban industrial society.  Like the Rogation Days in the spring which were once marked by processions to bless the fields for planting, is not Lammas Day nothing more than a quaint reminder, even a romanticization of a bucolic past which can never be retrieved?  To accept such a proposition would be to make a serious error. 

First of all, while agriculture has changed and the majority of people in developed nations have no direct connection with the production of food and other farm products, it is nevertheless the case that we are as dependent as we ever were on earth's bounty and its Giver.  The lives of city-dwellers are still shaped to some degree by the course of the seasons.  The food we eat and many of the materials that we use to craft the products which propel commerce come from farm and field, mine and ocean.  Our dependence on the earth and its resources has never been greater and we would do well to remind ourselves of this more frequently.

Secondly, days such as this serve to remind us not only of our dependence upon the natural order for our very survival, but of our responsibility as stewards of the earth.  Our day-to-day activities may often seem totally disconnected from the movement of the natural order, but the inescapable truth is that all of life is connected and whether we are involved in the management of natural resources or not, every person's life and activity have major effects on the natural order.  Most, if not all, environmental concerns are a matter of stewardship, a response to the wrong use of the riches of creation and an endeavor to right those wrongs.  And who better to call attention to these realities than the Church, which should understand better than most the nature of the blessing and the will of the Maker?

A simple way for the Church to do this is to ensure that Rogation Days and harvest festivals are observed even in the heart of the city and that their meaning is fully celebrated.  The revival of Lammas Day would add another piece to a cycle that should be recognized through all of the seasons.  The Arthur Rank Centre in England provides a number of resources, including a liturgy for Lammastide.  Another, very simple means of introducing the subject would be to revive the ancient blessing of loaves which once characterized the feast.  The following prayer is adapted from the  American Book of Common Prayer (Thanksgivings:  9. For the Harvest, p. 840).  It is suggested that loaves be blessed just before the final blessing and distributed to the people following the dismissal.

Blessing of Loaves at Lammastide

Most gracious God, by whose Word the earth was created to bring forth bread and the heavens to water it with rain:  We yield thee hearty thanks and praise for the return of seedtime and harvest, for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of its fruits, and for all the other blessings of thy merciful providence bestowed upon thy people.  We beseech thee to bless these loaves of bread, symbols of the first fruits of this year, and to bless all those who share them.  Give us a due sense of thy great mercies, such as may appear in our lives by a humble, holy, and obedient stewardship of Creation and all its goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all glory and honor, world without end.  Amen.