Leaving isolation after a long period of lock-down and social isolation was a pleasant end to an otherwise challenging year.
In Melbourne, Australia, we are all so pleased to be out of “iso” — the 112-days of lock-down and social isolation that ended in late October 2020.
It’s interesting, though, to consider what we have left behind: not just the frustration and worry, the separation from those we love. We were allowed out to exercise for only one hour a day, for several months, and had a curfew starting at 8 pm.
Yes, it was lonely and hard. The emotional stress is still very much part of our lives.
But within that lockdown many other aspects of real community began to emerge. Perhaps they were always there, but now they came to the fore.
Many people became much more interested in cooking at home and social media was alive with recipes and photos of their achievements. Others began to grow food.
Another area of interest was breadmaking. For many weeks, the flour and yeast sections of the supermarkets were bare. It became quite “fashionable” to make sour-dough bread.
I’m intrigued by this phenomenon – not so much that people made bread but that it was something people shared. It was I think an expression of community: we shared something even though we were isolated.
We shared in something that is almost universal, in various forms, throughout so much of human history: making bread for the household; making bread to sustain life and work; making bread to share at table together.
Breaking bread is an expression used for a meal shared with family and/or guests. It symbolizes hospitality, welcome and the most essential human relationship.
Many cultures work with the ethic that those who break bread together cannot work against each other. It is a means of developing or ensuring relationships. Making and breaking bread: this is life, together.
In iso we held onto this, in a common affirmation of life together. We may not have consciously named this implication, but I am sure it is there.
Breaking bread also has a very important part in many faith traditions. I do not presume to speak for all, but I know that for Christians bread and wine function as central and defining symbols of the life of the church.
The bread shared at Mass, Holy Communion or the Lord’s Table (whatever we call it) is named “the body of Christ,” as is the church itself. Those who share this bread are and become that body, seeking to be guided by the way of Christ, to live as his embodiment in the world today.
For a very long time, Christian thinkers have discussed and debated the character and significance of this bread.
For some, it is “mere” bread, the same as you get at the grocery store – and indeed it may well have been bought there.
For others, this bread has a profoundly different character. It may have come from the store, but it has been transformed so that is a special means of God’s grace, present with us and active in us even as we share it, and it makes its physical way through our bodies.
These human and physical elements become a form of divine action. Just as God was present in the human person Jesus, so too God can be present and active in this sacramental bread (and wine).
Between these perspectives there has been much debate and controversy, and many variations on these positions also.
Another area of debate concerns the “left-overs.” What should be done with the remainder, if not all the bread and wine are consumed by the people at communion?
Those of the “mere bread” position may urge someone to take it home for lunch. For others, that would be a sacrilege. The bread and wine must be consumed by the priest or other responsible minister as acts of worship.
I have found myself much more interested in the question of “what happens with the bread before communion?” My interest here began when I was privileged to study the worship practices of some Orthodox Christians.
Since ancient times, the practice has been that corn or wheat and grapes are brought by the people (villagers) from their homes and fields, and these are part of the offering, early in the liturgy.
The people bring the produce of their daily lives and work. Church officers (deacons) receive these offerings and take them to be ground into flour and crushed into grape juice.
Bread is actually baked during the service (which is usually three hours long). The bread and wine come from the people, are blessed in the liturgy and all of this is the sacrament.
God is present in all of this, from the labor of the people in the fields all the way to the ministrations of the deacons and priests, and the eating and drinking in the service – and then still with the people as they go home and into their everyday lives.
Jesus suggested in Matthew 13:33 that this work of making bread is one very good image of God’s way: God’s vision and purpose in and for all life in the world (sometimes translated God’s reign or kingdom).
This is what God is like: a bread maker.
Those of us sensing a new “community” of breadmaking were perhaps onto something much more than we realized: “on the edge of the sacred,” as David Tacey once put it.
Here are important questions for us, now, beyond lock-down:
- Where is this bread leading us?
- Where are we taking this sense of life together?
- What is becoming of the “yeast” we have sensed mixing within and among us?
We could ignore it all and go back (with understandable relief) to that “normal” where we thought we were too busy for such possibilities and challenges. We could once again revert to living for the next thing, activity, purchase or experience.
I hope not. I hope we can hold on to some of the insights given to us in iso.
There is a yeast, a sour-dough culture perhaps, a special something moving silently but creatively within our collective loaf, hoping to raise us to something yet more beautiful, to nourish our homes and our lives together.
May it be so. Come to us, stay with us, break bread with us, breadmaking God.
A Baptist pastor in Melbourne, Australia, and an associate professor in the University of Divinity.