The Lord's Snack

A friend who is something of an expert on the relationship between technologies of food production and American sacramental practices drew my attention to a fascinating essay at Killing the Buddha about the evolution of communion wafers as a mass-produced consumer product.  Evidently, a confluence of factors that are in themselves positive developments -- an upswing in the frequency of communion in many Protestant churches, a directive by the luminaries of Vatican II to make communion bread "more bread-like," a desire to take some of the pressure off overworked and under-resourced baking nuns who were struggling to keep up with the demand for altar bread for local parishes -- led to a state of affairs in which, contra generations of practice, most churches that use wafers for communion no longer purchase them from religious communities for whom baking is a form of prayer, but from a mass producer that makes its wares available off the shelf, in catalogs, or over the internet.

The author notes the similarities of the production process to that of ubiquitous snack food products, and comments that in some areas the hosts have even been marketed as a low-fat snack.  Conceptually, theologically, there's nothing really wrong with this -- everyone involved agrees that, until it's been consecrated, the communion wafer is just bread.  Still, it seems odd to employ the same substance at the two extremes (and only at the two extremes) of the scale of mindfulness with regard to eating.

Snacks are a sort of food (or edible foodlike substances) that are designed to be consumed mindlessly -- that's part of the reason low-fat or low-cal snacks are desirable, because we can inhale them without doing too much damage to our waistlines.  Communion-wafers-as-snacks certainly aren't being marketed for the flavor, as they have none.  I think they have to be sold as a vehicle for the tactile experience of eating, not for nourishment or for savoring.

Communicants at the Eucharist, on the other hand, are encouraged to be supremely mindful of their consumption; to prepare for their reception -- ideally with confession and fasting; to examine themselves and beware of consuming the bread unworthily or without discernment.  Maybe not concentrating on the flavor or the bread and wine per se, but still, a radically different mindset from the mindless consumption of snack food.

Most of our eating lies somewhere in the middle -- neither mindless nor intensely mindful, neither empty of nutrition nor overflowing with spiritual significance -- the meals that sustain our bodies and punctuate our days.  Most of the churches of which I have been a part over the years have used some sort of everyday bread, not a specialty product, for their communion observance, and although it sometimes seems like a dry snippet of plain sandwich bread is not special enough for the enormity of what we observe when we observe communion, I appreciate the way this practice connects the ritual eating with the rhythms of daily life.

I have a draft of a poem that's been incubating for about a decade, built around the observation of an adolescent member of a former congregation that the size of the portions shared at communion make the title "The Lord's Supper" a bit strange -- "this isn't the Lord's Supper," he declared, "it's more like the Lord's Snack."  Perhaps his words were only the flippant observation of a teenage boy with a bottomless pit of a stomach, but I've found them illuminating.  Can snacking be redeemed?  What's the difference between a snack, an appetizer, and a meal?  What is the significance of leaving the table still hungry?  There's an awful lot of meaning in a tiny bit of bread.


Amanda L. Caldwell said...

That was a fascinating essay. I had no idea of the production behind Communion wafers. If pressed, I'd have assumed they were mass-produced, but I had no idea they ever were not (and still are handmade in some convents).

I've now been at two churches for several years that use straight-up bread. I was thinking, Isn't that easier than all this fuss? But I forgot about the beliefs in consecration that vary, and the crumbs and leftovers that loafs produce.

I have to say the Chasid Cups make me wince. Why do people believe so strongly in sanitation in all things? (Remind me I said that when I'm dying of cholera from sharing Communion wine.)

About the Lord's Snack idea — Corin agrees. We don't have him go up during Communion, but he always wants "Jesus bread" afterward, and to bake a similar loaf at home. When I was serving Communion at our old church once, I remember watching a child come up and rip a huge hunk off the loaf. There's this one part of me that says, "No, no, no, religion is austere and the purpose of this bread is to be styrofoam-like and symbolic." And then the other part of me that thinks, "This is what Jesus meant when he held up little children as examples." Who gets it more right: our dainty nibbles or the tearing-off of hunks, the outright nourishment, that a child instinctually seeks?

Gosh, as you say in your next post, I seem to have gone off on a tangent. But thanks for the food (ha) for thought.

P.S. In trying to find this post to see what Steve said about Jesus bread, I also found this one, which includes an adorable sailor sweater someone made for us.

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