The Bread of Life
Grain, water, salt, leavening agent, honey. These basic ingredients have fed humanity for millennia. Combined in innumerable ways, they form bread. As a basic food, bread has everything necessary to sustain life, which is miraculous given the simplicity of its elements. For the majority of ancient people, bread was the centerpiece of most meals. The classic texts of antiquity, including the pages of the Old Testament, detail its prevalence and use. Enjoyed alongside sumptuous feasts or the sole item for a meal, the baking and eating of bread has been a food tradition regardless of economic class or status. Bread baking has such a long and important history that even the British Museum houses loaves thought to be 5,000 years old.(1)
I became interested in bread a few years ago when I was introduced to artisan bread baking. Artisanal breads are generally loaves that are hand-shaped, rather than put into a baking pan, and they do not utilize commercial yeast for leavening the loaf. Instead, loaves are carefully shaped by hand, and naturally occurring yeast is captured and used for leavening which requires much more time than commercial baking processes. Though a much slower process, the satisfaction that comes from the hearty, complex loaves makes artisanal baking worth the wait.
When I began baking in this manner, I remember being in awe that such simple ingredients could make something that tasted so wonderfully complex, and that was so deeply satisfying for hunger. For me, it gives endless delight to bake and share a loaf of bread with friends and with those in need. For how miraculous that something so simple and so basic could sustain and delight something as complex as human life.
Given its rich and long history, and the ubiquity of bread around the world as a basic food source, it is no surprise that one would find it as a prominent illustration in the teaching of Jesus. In the gospel according to John, for example, bread is a portion of the meal that was used in a great feeding miracle.(2) Barley loaves—five to be exact—nourished and sustained 5,000 weary travelers following around after Jesus and listening to him preach and teach. After being miraculously nourished and satisfied by such simple and meager elements, the people desired to seize Jesus and make him their king!
Like many of the crowds that followed, this one missed the point Jesus was making in using common elements, like bread. He had not come among them simply to serve as their miracle worker, but to reveal the life that was offered in the breaking of the bread to feed them.
So he tells them a story from the history of Israel. Like them, the ancient Israelites were fed when they were hungry. Manna, literally "what is it" in Hebrew, sustained them as they wandered in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. In this time of utter hunger and desperation, the children of Israel were sustained by this simple food that fell from heaven. But Jesus issues a sober reminder that the forefathers and mothers of Israel who ate manna—and those who now experienced the miracle of the loaves—would not be satisfied for long.
The simple sign of the bread was intended to point them all toward something else. To those listening to Jesus, the bread was a physical sign of the reality that the bread of life was now in their midst. "Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world." Jesus declares to them that he is the bread of life. Those who eat this bread will never be hungry again. Indeed, those who eat this bread will never die.(3)
Later, Jesus would again break bread with his twelve disciples. He would insist that it would be through his breaking, through his death on the Cross, that the bread of life would be given for the world. The manna, the barley loaves, and the bread at the Last Supper all point to the deeper reality that new and unending life comes as a gift from God who is at work among us, nourishing and gifting the world with bread from heaven—Jesus, the Messiah.
Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker with RZIM based in Seattle, Washington.
(1)Stephen Holloway, "The History of Bread" accessed from Food History at www.kitchenproject.com, 1998-2004.
(2)This story occurs in all four gospel traditions. John 6:1-14; 27-58. See also Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:11-17.
(3) See John 6:1-14; 27-58.