The Bread of Life

March 19 2015 | by

IMAGINE life without bread! Historians speculate that humans have used bread for over 30,000 years, ever since they pulverized grains to make flour. Early breads were flatbreads probably made by mixing finely pounded grain with water, flattening the dough, spreading it on flat rocks greased with animal fat, then frying it over an open fire. About 5000 years ago, the Egyptians discovered that flour which remained in water for some time began to bubble, the result of wheat flour’s naturally occurring yeast and bacteria. When this frothy mixture was mixed with additional flour, the whole dough would slowly inflate and make a tastier, lighter loaf.

Bread was a staple food in Israel at the time of Christ. When Jesus referred to himself as the ‘Bread of Life’ (Jn 6.35), he was claiming to be the heart of human existence. He went further at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist. There Christ said of the bread, “This is my Body” (Mt 26.26). He who called himself ‘the Bread of Life’ chose bread as the substance through which his Body would unite with ours to give us eternal life.

Since they do not consider the bread of the Last Supper to be the Body of Christ, but only a symbol thereof, non-Catholic Christian denominations often use leavened bread to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Sharing the Lord’s Supper unifies those at the service and recalls Christ’s sacrifice. As bread is passed through the congregation, each person breaks a piece and consumes it along with a small cup of grape juice or wine which symbolizes the Blood of Christ.

Catholics take Jesus at his word. When he said, “This is my Body… This is my Blood” (Mt 26.26-28), Catholics believe that Christ changed the substance of the bread into the substance of his Body and the substance of the wine into the substance of his Blood, even though outer appearances remained unchanged. This transubstantiation happens in every Mass.

At Mass, Catholic priests use only unleavened bread, just as Jesus did at the first Mass of the Last Supper. Why was the bread unleavened? Did the Jewish people not use yeast?

The Jewish people did use yeast, but Christ instituted the Eucharist during the Passover meal which recalled God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. At this celebration, the Jewish people use unleavened bread. Here’s why.


Feast of Unleavened Bread


Thousands of years earlier, the Israelite nation was enslaved in Egypt until God used Moses to deliver it from its oppressors. When a series of plagues, predicted by Moses, proved ineffective in persuading Pharoah to “let my people go,” Moses foretold one final plague after which, Moses predicted, Pharoah would drive the people out. God would protect the Israelites from this plague, provided they did as instructed. “Each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household” (Ex. 12:3). The “lambs must be one-year-old males without defect” (Ex. 12:5). On the fourteenth day of the month, the Israelites “must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast… Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover” (Ex. 12: 6-8, 11). “Seeing” the blood, the Lord would pass over the houses of the Israelites while striking dead the firstborn in the unmarked houses. This plague caused Pharoah to drive the Israelites out of Egypt so quickly that their dough had no time to rise, but instead baked in the hot sun as they crossed the desert.

God required yearly remembrance of this great deliverance. “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day” (Ex. 12: 17-18). Jesus instituted the Eucharist during the feast of Unleavened Bread at his final meal (the Last Supper) that he ate before his death.


Yeast of addictions


St. Anthony applied a symbolic meaning to leaven by meditating on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste, as you are unleavened. For Christ our Pasch is sacrificed” [1 Cor. 5.7]. Anthony, who cooked in the friary kitchen, was undoubtedly familiar with leaven (yeast) and how bread rises. We can imagine Anthony’s bread pan overflowing with over risen dough, because he writes, “Fermentation cannot be contained for more than the first hour, but it grows and overflows.” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, vol. I, p. 230, Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

Anthony likens insatiable sins to leaven. “The leaven is greed for earthly things and desire for carnal gratification, which after beginning to ferment becomes unbounded. The miser is not satisfied with the money he has, nor is the libertarian sated with fleshly indulgence” (Sermons vol. 1, p. 230). Addictions to more possessions and more sexual experiences persist to this day, resulting in therapies for shopaholics ( and sexual addicts (


Anthony knew


God instructed the Jewish people, “Seven days there shall not be found any leaven in your houses: he that shall eat leavened bread, his soul shall perish out of the land of Israel” (Ex 12.19). Anthony extracts meaning from the number seven. “Seven days means the whole time of our life, which goes in a seven day cycle. No leaven, fermenting with worldly and fleshly lusts, should be found in your houses, that is in your hearts. Otherwise, the soul of him who eats it will perish from the land of Israel, which stands for eternal life” (Sermons, vol. 1, p. 231). Centuries before psychology confirmed the destructive nature of addictions to stuff and to sex, Anthony knew.

Contrary to this leavened bread of ever expanding cravings is the unleavened bread, the “finely ground flour, the food of invalids,” which represents “penance, the food of sinners.” Sinners are spiritually sick. To heal the disease of sin, penance must be mixed “with water of contrition.” Then the penitent is not to delay for fear that the leaven of past sins will take over. The resolve of conversion (penance) mixed with remorse (water of contrition) must immediately be cooked “with the fire which is the love of the Holy Spirit” so that it becomes “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Thus we live sincerely as regards ourselves, and in truth as regards God and our neighbor” (Sermons, vol. 1, p. 231). In other words, love, which comes from God, firms up our penance (conversion of heart) mixed with true sorrow for sin so that we are nourished no longer with ever expanding worldly desires, but rather with virtue. No longer do we strive to possess or illicitly use. Instead we love and serve. Just as Jesus gave the apostles unleavened bread to become his Body “to strengthen their hearts for the labors they were to undergo” (Sermons, vol. 4, p. 180), so the Eucharist strengthens us for our life’s journey.


Simple recipe


Mindful of the meaning of unleavened bread, readers may wish to observe the Last Supper by having lamb, wine, herbs, and unleavened bread as part of their meal on Holy Thursday. Unleavened bread may be purchased, but readers may prefer to make their own in memory of those who baked the bread which Jesus took and blessed. To make unleavened bread, mix flour with enough cold water to create a ball of dough. With floured hands, flatten the dough as thin as possible into saucer sized pieces, then fry on both sides until brown. Or place the flattened dough onto cookie sheets sprinkled with corn meal and bake in a hot oven until browned.

Updated on October 06 2016