Sacred Objects: Bread by Rev. Anthony D. Makar
It’s said that the holy trinity of winter-storm preparedness is milk, eggs, and bread.
The storm is coming. You hear that you might be stuck at home for several days, and a certain anxiety bubbles up. Of course—you aren’t in control of the weather. But you can be in control of what’s in the fridge. So you’re on your way to Kroger, you’re on your way to Publix, you’re on your way to Trader Joe’s, and you can barely hold back from elbowing the people getting in your way.
Maybe it’s just me. Doesn’t matter that I am perfectly aware that my sense of panic is irrational. The anxiety still bubbles up. My life somehow feels threatened, and I want to live.
But, come to think of it, why do people reach for eggs and milk? Why those, when the real winter-storm threat is a loss of power, which means a loss of refrigeration, and perhaps a loss of the stove, and definitely a loss of the microwave. So how are you going to cook the eggs? And what’s going to keep the eggs and milk unspoiled?
It’s the bread part of the holy trinity of winter-storm preparedness that makes the most sense. Bread won’t spoil (at least in the short term). Bread doesn’t need to be cooked. You can eat bread with pretty much anything, in fact.
Bread does the best job to soothe our fears. (Or bread that’s gluten-free, for those with Celiac disease.)
Writer R. C. Sproul tells a beautiful story that highlights this power of bread in a different context: “After the Korean War ended,” he writes, “South Korea was left with a large number of children who had been orphaned by the war. … One of the people involved in this relief effort told me about a problem they encountered. Even though the children had three meals a day provided for them, they were restless and anxious at night and had difficulty sleeping. As they talked to the children, they discovered that the children had great anxiety about whether they would have food the next day. To help resolve this problem, the relief workers in one particular orphanage decided that when the children were put to bed, the nurses would place a single piece of bread in each child’s hand. The bread wasn’t intended to be eaten; it was simply intended to be held by the children as they went to sleep. It was a ‘security blanket’ for them, reminding them that there would be provision for their daily needs. Sure enough, the bread calmed the children’s anxieties and helped them sleep.”
That’s the story. Our unthinking impulses demonstrate something profoundly true about us. Whether we are talking about panic-based grocery shopping in the face of snowmaggedons, or if it’s baby orphans anxious about starving, bread represents life. Bread represents what is essential for life.
And the inventors of bread—the ancient Egyptians from 6000 years ago—formally acknowledged this. The Egyptian word for bread is “aish” and the Egyptian word for life is “aisha.” They share the same root.
Bread and life.
Then there is this ancient expression of the interconnection between the two: this prayer: from Matthew 6: 9-13:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
2000 years ago, Jesus taught this prayer to his disciples. There are seven requests involved: three are directed towards God, and four are about human living. One of the four is about bread. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Translators have taken the original Greek word “epiousios” and made it the English word “daily,” but literally “epiousios” means “that which is super essential for life.” Not just physical food for our bodies every day, but food for the Spirit as often as possible.
Give us this day our daily bread. Whether we are stocking up in advance of a winter storm, whether we are tender orphans afraid in an orphanage, or whether we are simply human beings—or spiritual beings having a human experience.
Bread has certainly been the life of our species, historically.
This truth has been encoded in ancient myths in fascinating ways. 4100 years ago, we have the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving great work of literature. Besides the hero Gilgamesh, we encounter his great friend Enkidu, who, when we first meet up with him, is thoroughly uncivilized. He is wild. But what domesticates him, besides making love with a human woman, is eating bread.
And then, almost 3000 years ago, Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, and in them, you hear a distinction that might sound strange: between lotus eaters and bread eaters. The lotus eaters are characterized as people who do not cultivate land, or work, and they live lives that can scarcely be called human. But as for the bread eaters: they do cultivate land, they do work, and they are truly human in their living.
You see, what both ancient works are doing is signaling the inseparability of agriculture from civilization as we know it. Eating grains in the form of bread allowed humans to eat lower on the food chain and to consume a greater diversity of energy sources. In turn, this required humans to settle in particular places for a long time. What was also required was expanding these long-term settlements into cities and then empires, for only the stability of city and empire infrastructures could ensure a continuing source of bread in a world that was precarious and changing.
Yet a third ancient myth that symbolizes all this together is the myth of the Greek Goddess Demeter. “Meter” means mother and “De” means earth or earth grains. So Demeter is the earth mother or earth grain mother, and accordingly, she is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture. But she is also the “Law Bringer” because agriculture is possible only where there is rule of civilized law.
Historically, bread and life go together.
This is generally true; but for some specific peoples, it’s true in unique fashion. And they ask us to eat bread to remember.
For example, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, and their salty tears never stopped pouring. But God delivered them out of Egypt. They knew that they’d need to pack food for the journey, especially bread, but God said, don’t leaven that bread. Don’t put yeast in it and waste time waiting for the dough to rise. Make your bread unleavened. Flat crackers is all you need. Pack and get out of there.
Ever since, Jews have remembered their deliverance from slavery during Passover Seders, where matzo are eaten. Bread of affliction, it is called.
But even so, bread of life.
Aish and Aisha.
Then there is the story of a different kind of oppression. Not thousands of years ago, just 150. Smithsonian Magazine tells the story: “the United States forced Indians living in Arizona to make the 300-mile journey known as the ‘Long Walk’ and relocate to New Mexico, onto land that couldn’t easily support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans. To prevent the indigenous populations from starving, the government gave them canned goods as well as white flour, processed sugar and lard—the makings of frybread.
“Frybread appears to be nothing more than fried dough—like an unsweetened funnel cake, but thicker and softer, full of air bubbles and reservoirs of grease—but it is revered by some as a symbol of Native pride and unity. Indian rocker Keith Secola celebrates the food in his popular song ‘Frybread.’ In Sherman Alexie’s award-winning film Smoke Signals, one character wears a “Frybread Power” T-shirt. Both men call frybread today’s most relevant Native American symbol. They say the food’s conflicted status—it represents both perseverance and pain—reflects these same elements in Native American history. ‘Frybread is the story of our survival,’ says Alexie.”
Again and again, Aish and Aisha.
Bread and life.
But the Bread and Life story has a wrinkle in it. Something as powerful as the bread=life connection is going to provoke turf wars. And for sure we see this in religious history.
Jeremiah 7:18 is a key verse here. It’s 2500 years ago. The armies of the great empire of Babylon burst into the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and the Jews were exiled into strange lands. But why did the God of the ancient Israelites, Yahweh, allow the Temple to be destroyed? Why did Yahweh allow this?
Jeremiah 7:18 is the clue: “The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.”
Who do you think is the speaker of this passage? Yahweh himself.
Is he happy?
No way. Yahweh is out-of-his-mind enraged.
He is no Unitarian Universalist God, who doesn’t care where people get truth and joy and meaning from. The Unitarian Universalist God knows that truth and joy and meaning come from all sorts of sources, and all the Unitarian Universalist God wants is for us to plug in. Be fed. Give us this day our daily bread, and the Unitarian Universalist God goes, Great! I got bagels. I got baguettes. I got biscuits, I got bocadillo. I got brioche. I got chapatis, Challah, lavash, naan, pitas, pizza, pretzels, puris, tortillas. I got it all, and it’s all good. But maybe you’re confused about bread. You say bread, but it’s truly not bread. It’s straight up candy. It’s Twizzlers. It’s Snickers. Ok. You’re on the road to finding out. No one can force you to learn what bread is. You are going to learn in your own time. And I’m definitely not going to threaten you (says the Unitarian Universalist God) with earthly destruction or with Eternal Hell unless you get your act together, because that’s not how I roll. What kind of way of teaching is that, anyhow? I’m not a bully. I’m the Unitarian Universalist God. This wide universe is safe for your journey.
You are safe.
But that’s the Unitarian Universalist God. That’s not Yahweh. Yahweh wants to be the one and only Bread of Life. He wants all the bread sacrifices, and no one else gets to have any.
Especially a female God. That really messes up the divine patriarchy, after all.
But Yahweh’s children disobeyed. They dared to sacrifice sweetcakes (like hot cross buns) to the Queen of Heaven.
And so Yahweh allowed them to be destroyed.
This is an exclusivist vision of the Bread of Life. Whenever Jesus is depicted as the sole Bread of Life, and the Christian Eucharist (or Communion) service argues to be the sole means of celebrating the Mystery of beloved community, and of love triumphing over death, well, that’s exclusivism.
It’s definitely not what we do here, when, during the sunrise Easter service, we celebrate our Unitarian Universalist Christian communion and we say,
The bread we share this day is sacred.
Grain, gift of the earth, gives life.
The friendship we share this day is sacred,
for all gatherings when people meet and touch, celebrate life.
The laughter we share this day is sacred.
Joy and sorrow that rise from love are springs of life.
The stillness we share this day is sacred.
In this peace is a haven for the spirit that nurtures life.
For bread, for friends, for joy and sorrow, for the comfort of quietness:
Let us ever be grateful and caring. (#727 in our UU Hymnal)
That is the bread of life.
That is our daily bread. Daily, as in epiousios. Super essential.
Spiritual malnutrition is real, and exclusivism only makes it worse. But the Bread of Life—at least the Bread of Life that Unitarian Universalists believe in—is all around us, plentiful, and all we need do is reach out and take in.
Take, eat, do this in remembrance of the Life Abundant that all cultures throughout all time have known, that wants abundance for each of us, and for all. No exceptions.
Do this in remembrance.