Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"Yes, but is it bread?"

A post by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod writer at Getreligion, discusses an article (with video) in the Boston Globe, featuring The Cavanagh Company, a Rhode Island-based firm that makes unleavened hosts for the Eucharist, as used in Latin Rite Roman Catholic Churches as well as Anglican and Lutheran congregations. Cavanagh, “the Microsoft of altar breads,” apparently has an 80% market share.

First, let me make clear that neither I nor the ACCA are inherently opposed to the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. We take the view that bread, any bread, whether leavened or unleavened, is valid matter for the central celebration of the Christian faith, while also noting that for our Armenian brethren, both Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic, unleavened bread is normally used to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Pluralism is proper here, at least between Rites, in that the use of leavened bread is rooted in one sort of symbolism, unleavened in another, and both are informed by the Gospel: Christ is free of “the leaven of the Pharisees” while at the same time, He is the new leaven which causes “the whole lump to rise”. I also have to say that I am impressed with the Cavanagh family’s development of technology which allows them to mass produce a product that is edible, reasonably bread-like, and largely crumb-free, which is always a concern with altar bread. It is not easy to make such unleavened bread. Believe me, I’ve tried, and the results have not been edible. Futher, unleavened bread is a great deal easier to work with once it is consecrated, especially when it comes to the reservation of the sacrament.

One bit of irony, however, has to do with the idea that Cavanagh communion bread is “untouched by human hands” prior to its being used to celebrate the Eucharist. Consider the prayer with which the bread is offered, in the contemporary Roman Rite, during the “Preparation of the Gifts”:

“Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to offer which earth has given and HUMAN HANDS HAVE MADE. It will become for us the bread of life.” (Emphasis added)

The bread and wine are means by which, in the Eucharist, we Christians offer ourselves, our world, and our work to God. This is why, in Eastern Christian circles, it is normal for the Eucharistic bread (leavened in most Eastern Christian traditions) to be made by a priest or by a member of the congregation. I myself make leavened eucharistic bread for use on special occasions. Further, there are still Western Rite convents and monasteries which make unleavened altar breads. For these monks and nuns, this work is both ministry and means of support, and it certainly involves "the work of human hands". Another institution which makes these breads is St. Michael's Bakery, in the Netherlands. Started as a school for the deaf in early 19th Century, it now provides occupational therapy to those in need. St. Michael's altar breads are available in the United States here (from a company which also sells Cavanagh breads).

Another bit of irony in this article has to do with the attitude apparently taken by members of the Cavanagh family to their product: “no reverence”. “Until it’s consecrated by the priest, it’s just bread,” they say. The problem here is that bread, any bread, is potentially the Body of Christ. Therefore, it, and by extension, all food, is to be treated with a certain amount of deference, especially bread which is being made specifically for the Eucharist. Contrast this attitude to that of a Russian immigrant women, once employed in a fine restaurant. She left this job shortly after starting because she was required to dispose of bread left uneaten by the patrons. “I have to throw away the Body of Christ!” All bread is potentially the Body of Christ, all wine His precious blood. This is directly related to the Christian giving of thanks, not just in the Eucharist, but before consuming any food or drink.

1 comment:

Ttony said...

Dear Fr Greg, a lot to think about here. You're right, of course, about the potentiality of each grain of wheat to finally achieve the ultimate fulfillment, but I would get slightly nervous about raising the importance of the bread to anything even beginning to touch the shadow of the priest who transforms the bread and the wine.

There again, I'm a Roman.

Keep me thinking!