Wednesday, November 28, 2007

On Eucharistic Bread

Another worthwhile post here, this time from the Ocholophobist on Eucharistic bread. I don't read this blog much as I think Owen and I come from such very different places. We are passionate about very different things, and we view the church in different ways. But every once in awhile, I take a look over there and this evening am glad I did. This post was interesting, I thought.

If it seems to you that those of us in Churches that have closed communion are required to endlessly repeat our reasons for this practice, you are quite correct in your assumption. So be it. As for this Orthodox layman, I have a reason for not taking communion anywhere other than an Orthodox church that, and while certainly not being at all as important as other arguments, is a lesser polemic of sorts which I offer for your consideration.

In almost any other type of Christian church, sect, house-church, association, or assembly the communion bread used will have been made by a process that is grossly automated, considering what it is that is being made. Most people do not know that one company makes the vast bulk of communion wafers used in most wafer using churches, and this company, of course, uses a very, very automated process. In 1974, “The Cavanagh Company held sixty percent of the Catholic market for altar bread.” Today, “the company now runs round-the-clock shifts to produce 20 million Communion wafers weekly, representing eighty-five percent of the U.S. and Canadian markets for the product and fifty percent of the market in the United Kingdom.” The ├╝berwafer production company now bakes most (by far) of Catholic wafers and Southern Baptist crackers. Strange bedfellows for such breadcrumbs. Well, except that the Cavanaghs manufacture "a sealed edge to prevent crumbs." As you might suspect, their much smaller competitors are automated as well. This means that the bread used in communion by any given church you might choose to attend other than an Orthodox church has been made by a machine, and not by human hands.

I believe that all Orthodox churches use as their prosphora (communion bread) that which has been prepared by an actual human being. Now, I must admit that when my wife makes prosphora, she uses her Kitchen Aid mixer. We are backslidden Luddites. But even with the help of such a machine, my wife still gets her hands on the bread. She combines each ingredient in tactile fashion, she rolls the bread with a roller (with hands, that is), and the rising and baking involve the attention of one human, who happens to be a communicant at the church where the bread will be used for holy Communion. Thus when we offer the bread and wine to God at Divine Liturgy, the bread has been baked by a member of our parish. While I have heard that a very few Orthodox churches buy their bread, I believe that this is done from a local monastery, and, to my knowledge, prosphora cannot be mass-produced and marketed [please correct if I am mistaken]. There are certain prayers and ritual that go along with the baking of it. One also needs a prosphora stamp in order to bake the bread, and one must have a basic knowledge of prosphora baking, a knowledge of both the material and devotional processes involved. I think it safe to say that nearly all Orthodox prosphora is prepared by a member of the parish in which it is offered to God.

Our theology of Communion should reflect itself down to even the most mundane details. In the Orthodox Church, thanks be to God, this is the case. Some will think that my point here is trivial. On the contrary, I believe that to offer to God a pile of pre-packaged wafers made in some other state by machines run by persons completely unknown to the parish shows a disrespect to God, and, in a certain subtle way, shows a disregard for creation. Any old wafer will do then, so long as we get it in a cheap and efficient manner. If the (machine packaged) package of fast food wafers advertises that they were made by nuns [when in fact made by machines owned by a convent] then this may help the buyer feel that the product is somehow more "authentic" or holy. Nonsense. The best thing that we can offer to God, and ultimately the only thing, is ourselves. Baking communion bread within the parish is a gift of self on the part of the baker and the parish community. Buying cheap pre-packaged bread (whether wafers, crackers, or store bought pita) is liturgically, and theologically disordered. The manner in which we get our communion bread is an icon of what we think of God, creation, and ourselves.


DebD said...

At our parish we have Prosphora workshops where everyone works together to make them (and they also use a machine). But, I wonder how the very large parishes in places like Greece and Russia make their Prosphora.

Dwight P. said...

I'm with it! This should be standard practice in all Christian churches. I've got a lot more to say about this, but I'll think it through first.

Thanks for this.