The Sad Loss of the One Bread
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it
and gave it to his disciples, saying,“Take and eat; this is my body.”
To be fair, no one knows for certain what the bread of the Last Supper looked like. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the meal as taking place on the Passover. For this reason, the Roman Church has always used some form of unleavened bread. John’s account takes place perhaps on the night before. The Orthodox Churches have followed John, been freed from the unleavened bit, and have always used leavened bread to signify the Resurrection. It seems to me the latter is a more meaningful practice for the the Christian Church, and it allows for a more “recognizable” loaf of bread.
The real question is when, where, and why did the Church start using small, thin wafers instead of loaves of bread? It seems clear there was at least one loaf of bread at the Last Supper. The early Christian Eucharists took place as part of a normal meal, and likely also used loaves of bread. When and why the wafers? Again, no one knows. But there are some educated guesses.
Some suggest that (in the Roman areas) the use of unleavened bread was crumbly and so caused “profanation” of the sacrament. (Getting blessed crumbs on the ground.) So they opted for bite-sized wafers instead: no crumbs.
Some suggest that wafers were easier for priests to carry from church to church as they made their Eucharistic rounds.
I’m going to suggest that is was an intentional move by the Church hierarchy to create “special holy bread” that was not readily available to lay people, thus reserving the mystery to the clergy. (Today, it places the custody of the Holy Bread in the hands of commercial corporations such as Cavanagh or Cokesbury.)
In any case, it’s not what Jesus and the Disciples ate in the Upper Room, nor what the early Church used at the first Agape meals, which became the first Eucharists. The loss of the full sized loaf of bread for the tiny wafers had the effect, of course, of individualizing the Communion experience. No longer was there “One Bread, One Body.” For generations the Common Cup preserved the sense of Unity. But now the practice of dipping has completed our individual isolation, and removed all expression of the Unity of the Faithful from the Eucharistic Meal.
My Liturgics professor back in 1980 used to say that those wafers are a “double-symbol.” Before you can believe they are the Body of Christ, you have to believe they are bread.
But this need not be. Today in each congregation we can experience the Eucharistic Meal as it was experienced when it first became a Sacrament of the Church. Just as it is a simple step for each Christian to begin once again to drink from the Common Cup, so it is a simple step to reject those little wafers for real bread, baked by members of the congregation.
Today we have some dietary concerns that the first Christians did not have, partially because the wheat available to us today bears little resemblance to the wheat which was grown in their time. Some say we need the wafers, so we can accommodate those needs, especially for those who need a gluten-free alternative. But today’s gluten-free flours and flour mixes make good tasting loaves of real bread. See the recipe links below. You can easily make a large enough loaf for 100 people. If you need more, just make additional loaves, made from the same batch of dough.
One Bread, One Body, One Lord of All, One Cup of Blessing