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Counterfeit Bread

What sort of bread is the Eucharist?  This is the kind of question we are discouraged from asking by an over emphasis on the “accidental” character of the Eucharistic species.  But I often find that when I lose my way in Eucharistic wondering and wandering I find my way back through the material elements, not the philosophical distinctions (trails of breadcrumbs I’ve been leaving since I was a boy, some leading to my grandmother’s kitchen, some to the altar…)  So when I hear the dry popping sound of the fraction rite I raise my eyebrows over closed eyes and I suspect that someone is foisting a counterfeit bread. 

(I must say that I am thinking of the general ritual practice of Roman Catholics in the United States and I leave out of my consideration the more ancient and more tasty custom of using leavened bread as practiced, for example, by our Orthodox brothers and sisters.  Further, the Catholic use of the unleavened loaf has good theological legs; it just doesn’t have to be so bad.)

I will resist here, the temptation to make a purely gastronomical point rather than a theological one but I must insist that, when it comes to bread, the two are connected.  Despite the best efforts of liturgical rubricians, sacramental bread cannot be separated from daily bread.  No matter how quotidian a meager loaf in Christian hands appears, it cannot be extricated from a history of effects that ties it back to John 6.  The Lord’s prayer reminds us that “daily” bread is epiousios and even these morsels are saturated with meaning.  So what is the result of offering the ritual bread of Eucharistic celebration which is so far removed from, well, actual bread?

The result is that we are counterfeiting our symbols.  Symbols are supposed to “throw-together” things that are not, on the surface, alike.  Bread is polyvalent, and its entire semantic range is meant to be thrown together with the body of Christ.  This is not the case.  The host is a victim of a serious reduction: the breadliness of bread is legislated down to a bare minimum.  I’m loath to point this out, but here’s the liturgical principle: the more rarified, the more sacred; the more dissimilar something is to everyday objects the more suited it is to liturgical use.  Liturgical norms titrate these counterfeits, certify them as authentic, and mandate them (guarding against coeliacs and cultures without wheat).  The real danger of the counterfeit is that it gives us a lesser value of bread.  It rends bread from its totality of involvements. 

 Cash.  Cash stands in the place of value and obligation.  Am I against the market economy? Not completely.  What I am against is the cash value of the Eucharist, not in dollars and cents, but as the currency of Sunday obligation.  The Eucharist becomes the receipt of an obligation fulfilled and the pre-packaged, not-for-resale, single serving of a spiritual product that my hour’s time purchases.  Am I exaggerating?   God, I hope so.  But when we no longer realize the ethical imperative of the Eucharist which forms us as a community and calls us to action, the Eucharist becomes transactional.  If it is food at all, it is fast food at best.

Posted by Noel Terranova

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  1. Sonja
    January 22, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Holy crap. I don’t know how I stumbled on this blog. This is amazing.

  2. Spencer
    January 27, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    I like the points that you make about the semantic range of the symbol being reduced by being rarified.

    However, your last paragraph seems to leap to another order of – unwarranted, I suspect – concern. The host of the Catholic Mass is just as removed from the ordinariness of fast food as it is from the ordinariness of regular bread. It strikes me that the spiritualization which reduces the symbolic value of blessedly material bread also spiritualizes the Eucharist away from crassly material cash.

  3. Noel Terranova
    January 31, 2010 at 2:14 am

    Hey, Spencer, yeah the last paragraph is little, er, under-introduced. It’s another essay, really, but it is the most important point if we want to talk about Eucharistic counterfeits in a late capitalist context. I was feeling a bit cavalier so I chucked it in; it makes progress towards the “madness of economic reason” (Derrida) and how that impacts liturgy.

    Some other time, maybe.

    Sonja, you’re the bee’s knees. I hope you’re still kicking ass and regulating chumps.

  4. Cass
    February 5, 2010 at 5:43 am

    Respectfully (and I really, truly mean that), isn’t the whole post a bit cavalier?

    Granted, standard-issue, RC communion bread is thin, dry and gummy, on the whole: untantalizing.

    But it does taste of wheat, in fact, the recognizable reality of wet wheat flour that has been baked. Reductionist, okay. But, counterfeit?! Really? Do you really want to say that?

    You sneer at cash. Fine. That is one conversation. But cash is issed by the Federal Reserve. That is what defines it as being cash. Counterfeit cash is another game entirely.

    One parish in my area, in the nineties, attempted to make their own bread. They found it went stale too quickly. They added honey to remedy that….ultimately their ovens were shut down by the bishop. Rightly so, no?

    Isn’t the other extreme–opposite to the strictly mandated, over-refined symbol that displeases you–an inevitable Humpty-Dumptyism: “This particular crumbly honey cake you have in hand is an example of the sort of thing that I call bread”….with each separate I ad hoc arbiter of “his own” meaning?

    I see your point. Honestly. But I don’t see it leading anywhere better than where we are.

    Yours with love, in Christ Jesus.

    • Cass
      February 5, 2010 at 6:16 am

      Note the “we” above, Noel.
      On what do I presume to base it? Neither on symbol, nor counterfeit, but the reality of the One Bread. True Bread.
      Both one and true. A manifest reality that fully satisfies two such exacting criteria ought not–cavalierly–be scoffed at or shunted aside.

  5. Noel Terranova
    February 5, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Thanks for the follow up on your comment, because I think the idea of “one” and “true” are really interesting here. I’m not entirely convinced that current practices “fully satisfy” this “manifest reality,” as you put it.

    The “one bread” is what is most obfuscated by current communion elements. The oneness of the bread should be expressed in the fraction rite (not necessarily in just having one big loaf, although that is always preferable when possible). As it stands, the fraction rite does function symbolically, yes, but it is perfunctory at best. The bread is already offered and blessed as discreet single serving units. The breaking is essential to the sharing and yet we find it minimized.

    And what is “true” bread? It very much seems the “truth” of the bread lies in its conformity to liturgical legislation rather than in its symbolic value as food, meal, fellowship, and offering from the community. The two need not be mutually exclusive, but the former is so much emphasized over the latter that there is a fundamental inversion of symbolic priorities.

    This inversion makes me think of a story of Jesus on the way, walking through a grain field, his disciples picking heads of grain and making a path. The pharisees confront him because it is the Sabbath day. He famously responds, “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mk 2:27 NAB)

    (I could gleefully midrash out the eucharistic implicatins of this pericope, but I’ll leave it there)

    Let me sum it up with a berakah and a marketing example: the liturgy says, “…through your goodness we have this bread to offer which earth has given and human hands have made….” an altar bread company says their breads are produced in “an exceptionally clean and modern automated facility. The breads are sealed minutes after baking and are untouched by human hands.”*

    * see http://www.cavanaghco.com/acatalog/About.html

  6. Cass
    February 6, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Thank you for the response, and for the good grace with which you appear to have accepted my hazardously butt-insky comments.
    I have read the above and am thinking about it.
    I hope you’ll check back again once or twice, because I do sense there remains something more to be said (once properly discerned) on a matter (ha-ha:)) really worth our attending to.
    Peace of Christ.

  7. Cass
    February 6, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    A couple of questions while I think, if you will permit me:
    Whence have you derived
    (1) “…here’s the liturgical principle: the more rarified, the more sacred; the more dissimilar something is to everyday objects the more suited it is to liturgical use.”
    (2) “The oneness of the bread should be expressed in the fraction rite (not necessarily in just having one big loaf, although that is always preferable when possible). …the breaking is essential to the sharing…”

    I am not a scholar, just a ‘concerned citizen’ and amateur. So, before I engage these, it would help me to know how much they have to do with study of rubrics themselves and/or catechesis/scriptural theology, and how much they are simply the gut feeling of an intelligent and sensitive guy in the pews.

    If you can. Thanks.

  8. Cass
    February 9, 2010 at 8:56 am

    I am uncertain whether this discussion is live or dead, but as I previously committed to offering some substantive response to your last, I feel I ought to do so. I want, BTW, to thank you for your post, as it has helped me–in this moment–to focus on a misunderstanding of the communion rite that is prevalent among Catholics of our day, that I have been more or less caught up in myself over the years.

    To be brief, it is a mistake to think of the Eucharistic celebration–or the matter of the sacrament, the bread and wine–primarily as “food, meal, fellowship, and offering from the community”. Our protestant brethren commonly think of the table of fellowship or whatnot as a sort of fond recollection of the last time Jesus shared a pizza with his pals. It is not that there is NO truth in that convivial image, yet it is so minute a particle of the whole truth that, unto itself alone, it is very nearly false.

    The oneness of the bread of the Eucharist is not–at all–the oneness of a discrete loaf of bread. This can be established by examining (1) the constitutive elements of the historical Pascal meal–wherein we find multiple small loaves, (2) the feeding of the five thousand–upon five loaves and two fishes, or (3) the manna from heaven of Exodus and Numbers–little pellets the size of a coriander seed, far nearer grains of wheat than bits of crust and airy dough. Of equal import, it can be established by the proper understanding of Christ himself as the connatural principle of the being and unity of Christians. He is the original Germ of Wheat to which we are the abundant fruit. The oneness of the Church is not as pieces to a conglomerate, but as children to a father, as tendrils to a vine, as branches to the mustard seed from whence they derive the principle of the life that is in them. [The meaning of the fraction rite, I guess, has more to do with the sacrifice, the destruction of the body of the Christ in his self-giving by way of suffering mortality, like the destruction of the grain of wheat in germination, than with “sharing” in the sense of divvying up a whole.]

    The truth of bread–any actual material bread–of course cannot be a function of whether or not it “throws together” or encompasses the inexhaustible multiplicity of discrete human memories and associations. The truth of bread lies merely in its being bread as opposed to being some other substance. Communion wafers satisfy the going definition of bread without neglecting respect of all its historical and multi-cultural complexity. They may not afford your or my very favorite flavor or texture of bread, but they cannot be classified as any other substance but bread. What the thorough baking of glops of wheat flour yields is bread.

    I recommend anyone interested in pursuing the question further to look at BXVI’s Postsynodal Exhortation, here,

    I am pressed for time. Otherwise might have taken greater care of the tone. I ask your charity toward the under-educated, inadequately articulate, sometimes over-eager, humble sister in Christ who felt moved to write all the above. I solicit your prayers and promise to remember you in mine.

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