“This bread we have baked represents each one of us in this family,” says the prayer we recite after baking the prosphora, or communion bread.
Every time, this sort of shocks me. Fascinates me. Mildly appalls me.
How can it be that altar bread represents us–how can something so sacred and central to our faith and practice represent something so hopelessly unsacred, inadvertently profane, and chaotically disordered? Maybe I just have a low anthropology. But in fact it’s based on observation–of others’ lives and my own.
This weekend it’s my turn to bake the bread, and it’s also our 16th wedding anniversary. So there is a convergence of thinking about, celebrating, and representing family, my family, each one of us.
I didn’t grow up in a communion-bread baking home, or even a church-going home; when I became a Christian I was not in a church that had bread bakers, or communion very often at all. When it did happen it was a highly individualized and miniaturized affair, each of us partakers with our own little cube of Wonder bread and teeny cup of grape juice. There were no special prayers associated with the business. Once in my old church we even recited the 12 Steps before communion, just to shake things up, presumably. Even then I had a feeling there might have been better things to say on the occasion, but it happened so rarely that it didn’t seem to matter.
Here in the Orthodox church, where I hang my hat these days, communion is very much a regular event of the whole community. Most in our church receive communion every week; we use a common cup for both the bread and the wine; the bread is baked by the families of our church.
Several years ago I decided I wanted to be a part of that baking thing.
Though ours is not an especially spiritual home, I jumped at the chance to be a bread baker because, of course, I’d been baking yeast breads for a decade and I was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. There were so many bakers that the responsibility came up only every few months, and it would not be an onerous burden. One had to be trained in the baking of prosphora, which I inwardly scoffed at–I already knew how to bake!
I imagined my whole family, there in the briskly clean kitchen, all smiles as we worked together mixing, kneading, shaping loaves. Somehow I pictured a rosy family wearing headcoverings (something which neither I nor my daughter ever do), candles lit, perhaps, and listening to Orthodox church music, or better yet, singing it. Sort of a baking von Trapp family.
This is what I imagined.
But there have been a few problems with this picture, not least of which was my handle on the bread baking part of the equation.
For the first three or four experiences of baking, the bread was a disaster. It did not rise much, it cracked as it baked, it stuck to the pans, the all-important impression of the seal did not remain in the baking. Ugly flat little disks with the bottom ripped off (still in the pan)–that tasted pretty awful.
The recipe was simple and unyielding. This was not the place for improvising. You could use only one packet of yeast for seven cups of flour. You were to use no oil in the pan to avoid sticking. Mysteriously, the recipe called for only one rise. And after the dough is placed in the pan, you take a wooden disc with imprinted symbols and press it hard onto the dough, hoping against hope that the design remained in place during the baking.
These were hazards, yes, but other people’s bread was usually quite lovely and tasty, and in actuality I had no idea what was the matter with mine. It did set me back a bit to contemplate that this mess I was baking was supposed to be communion bread.
So I talked with the experienced bakers of the church. “I use twice as much salt as the recipe calls for,” said one. “I raise the dough two times before putting it in the pans for the third rise,” offered another. “I use only silicon pans because the bread will never stick,” said the priest’s wife, actually bequeathing me her set after I had explained my plight.
These changes more or less fixed my bread baking disasters. But they did not have any effect on two other elements of my communion-bread-baking-von-Trapp-family fantasy. The first of which was my ability to keep track of when it was my turn to bake.
It seems my weeks for doing this always fell on momentous occasions in the church year, like Forgiveness Sunday just before Lent (our rough equivalent of Ash Wednesday). Or Christmas.
Christmas, which we spent in Delaware this past year. On the day after Christmas I had a nagging feeling about something. As with a confused awakening from a foggy dream, recollections slowly materialized in my mind. In a panic I checked my church’s website because my nagging feeling began to take shape as something round, golden, and baked. Aaacck! It was so. I was the bread baker for the Christmas service.
I was the bread baker for the Christmas service! But I was not there and I did not do it! I ruined Christmas! How could I have ruined Christmas?! Did I ruin Christmas??
I quickly wrote an email to my friend, the only person I could possibly talk to about this because of her dual role as wife of the junior priest and as a very approachable peer: DID I RUIN CHRISTMAS?!
I could have called of course, but this would have been too, too humiliating. So I had to dangle for awhile in fairly abject misery, waiting until she was able to write me back.
Well it was a Christmas miracle, apparently. No, no I did not ruin Christmas–so she said. There were spare loaves in the freezer–so she said. I’ll never know if this response was a belated Christmas gift, or the facts of the matter. But it’s water under the bridge now.
Now I have a few friends who call me or email me, or both, the week I’m scheduled to bake. It’s a community effort all right.
But not–and here we arrive at the third skewed element of my imagined communion-bread-baking-family bliss–not a community effort which generally involves my family. Generally I am the lone baker. Sometimes I make the rest of them join me in prayers before and after baking, or help me knead, sometimes do the seal. But sometimes I feel like the Little Red Hen, an angry, impious Little Red Hen in an impious barnyard. As a matter of fact, we have never all four done this process from start to finish. Just today one child refused to join me. (What?! Was it something I said?!) Here I am at the door of my seventeenth year of marriage, and no part of my family life looks like my fantastical imaginings from the beginning. Our home is often a jaggedy place with more bickering than laughter. Each one of us has struggles and strife. I myself am a Christian whose life does not look like I imagined it would, whose spirituality is hit and miss, whose faith is like a rowboat full of holes and who clings to grace, and to the church, like a drowning woman to a life preserver in a tempest-tossed ocean, and who has really a lot of laundry to do.
But setting aside wild-eyed notions of rosy-cheeked hymn-singing children in the pristinely well-ordered home, the family I have is the one God gave me, the right one, the real one, the source of joy as well as strife, the place in which we all grow into the image of the divine.
This brings me back to my title. This bread we have baked represents each one of us in this family, the prayer says, and in this congregation. This plain act of baking plain bread is a representation of an offering of ourselves to God–it is an offering of ourselves to God. We do not just come to the altar each week at church, we are on the altar, we are the offering to God. We are the offering, we in all our chaos, impiety, disorder. And God receives it, receives us, and offers us back himself. Somehow. Somehow.
The Greek-derived word for communion is “eucharist,” from Greek efcharisto, literally, thanks. That is, thanks, God, for accepting the offering of weak imperfect people. And thanks, God, for continually making us new, and making us better, and making us into who we truly are.
That’s my prayer for the world, and for my family.
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