Years ago I made multiple loaves of bread to be given to my family and friends as a Christmas gift – that Christmas was at least twenty five years ago. Some of the loaves were the standard size for home baked bread of 9 inches by 5 inches, some breads were smaller at around 5 inches by 3 inches. Each person receiving a gift of home baked bread was given several small loaves of differing varieties with the addition of one or two larger loaves. The loaves were all wrapped in foil, tied with a pretty ribbon and presented in a gift basket. It had taken multiple days to bake the different recipes, and then to wrap and choose which loaves went to each individual. It was an enjoyable experience thinking about each person who would receive the bread and which loaves might be special to them. The gift was a surprise to each to whom it was given and was well received by all.
I started thinking about this gift of bread as I was cleaning out the kitchen cupboards. I found a half dozen of the small loaf pans (5″x3″) and another seven of the larger pans that were used to bake the bread so many years ago. I haven’t used the smaller bread pans in quite a few years, so they were out of sight, stacked behind other serving dishes and casserole and baking pans. I still use some of the larger bread pans, as I bake bread during the winter months. I haven’t decided what to do with the smaller bread pans. It is difficult to give away things that have a pleasant memory still attached to them.
An old bread recipe given to me by a long departed friend, which had been handed down to her from her mother, provides enough dough to make seven loaves of bread at a time. Mixing that quantity of dough all at once is a physical challenge now, though it has always been a great exercise kneading that quantity of dough. I made my friend’s bread recipe a few months ago and decided then that I wouldn’t make it again – this recipe was the one reason I used to hold on to so many large bread pans.
In the midst of thinking about all these bread pans, their history and the tasty gift breads which I once made, I couldn’t help thinking about the “special bread” which God shares with us each and every time we attend Mass. While the “bread from heaven” is shaped into small, flat disks and is generally tasteless, the “bread from heaven” is a more valuable gift than what I had given away so many years ago.
The “bread from heaven” (Consecrated Host) is very small – only about 1 inch or so in diameter and yet it carries with it an eternal promise. The plain, unleavened Consecrated Bread is our “food for the journey” of our earthly life and is meant to sustain us as we continue our pilgrimage to heaven. Like the ancient Hebrews who were given manna in the desert to sustain them during their journey to the Promised Land, we too have been gifted by God with sustenance for the journey.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 6 we read the “Bread of Life discourse” during which Jesus identifies himself as being the “bread from heaven”. Many people turned away from following Jesus after He had said the following: “unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”
During Jesus’ final Passover Supper – we don’t know how long it was after that incident above occurred – we read the following: (Luke 22:19-20) “Then he (Jesus) took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying “this is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.””
In the Old Testament we are told that Jews were forbidden from drinking the blood of an animal, as life was considered to be in the blood and that life was created by and belonged to God. I have often wondered what the Apostles thought of what Jesus said and did during that last meal. Did anyone recoil at the thought of the body and blood which was being offered in the form of bread and wine or look to the others present for an explanation of what was transpiring during that meal? Were the Apostles remembering other covenants between God and the patriarchs? Did they remember that “blood” was often involved in the sealing of a covenant, yet none of those old covenants required the drinking of blood but rather the sprinkling of it?
After the death of Jesus those puzzling words of His must have been in sharp focus for those who had been present at that “Last Supper”. When did the Apostles understand what Jesus was telling them? Did the Apostles connect the New Covenant which Jesus had spoken of with the Old Covenant between God and the Jewish people? Did the Apostles understand the connection between the lamb’s blood on the doorways of Egypt and the blood of Christ poured out on the Cross? How long before the Apostles truly knew that our freedom from sin was purchased by the sacrifice of Christ?
After Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven, the Apostles repeated often the ceremony with the bread and wine which Jesus initiated, believing that the words of Jesus not only kept the Lord present with them but by eating the bread and drinking the wine, they were helped on their life’s journey. Each time the first Christians ate the bread and drank the wine, they were renewing the “New Covenant” which Jesus had established, the New Covenant which had made peace between God and man and opened the gates to heaven.
As a child preparing to celebrate my First Holy Communion, I was taught that the Consecrated Host is truly the Lord’s body. And as a child I accepted freely and eagerly what I was taught. Only after many years did I begin to fully recognize that what I was taught as a child is true – perhaps more true than anything else in our broken world.
Jesus is present to me in the Eucharist – the Consecrated Bread and Wine – and continues to love and sustain me as I make my journey in this life. During these last 15 or so years when I have grown stronger in my faith, I have begun to see how Jesus has touched and renewed my heart over and over again through this gift of bread. What appears to the human eye as just a simple bread is truly a gift of heaven. Day by day, even hour by hour, in Catholic Churches around the world, God continues to feed His children with this life sustaining, miraculous bread. How blessed we are to have so generous a God!