I remember my first bite of communion bread painfully well.
Not because there was any kind of ceremony or memorable marking of the occasion. No, I remember my first bite of communion painfully well because I stole it.
I grew up in a tradition that allowed congregants to take the sacrament after they'd prayed the believers prayer. The intention was that we must understand what it means before we take part.
As a kindergartner, I couldn't articulate what the monthly meal symbolized, but I craved it deeply. One Sunday we met for church in a theater. I sat on the steps at the end of an aisle, next to a box of individually wrapped communion packets--each one containing a sealed shooter of grape juice and a cracker. My curiosity got the better of me so, under the dark of the theater, I stole a packet and nibbled on it during church.
Nothing remarkable happened. I didn't suddenly understand the meal, and I didn't feel any closer to Jesus. But I did feel deep shame over my theft. That afternoon, I went to my parents in tears confessing what I'd done.
I can't remember how much longer I had to wait until I was allowed to start taking communion. At some point I was able to articulate the story that the meal represented sufficiently enough to eat it. I attended some churches that served communion monthly, one that practiced the sacrament weekly. For a short time in college, I even went to a church that never took communion at all. (I'm told they did on Easter, but I was out of town). I knew that the process was done in remembrance of Christ's death and resurrection, I knew it was meant to guide me into reflection on my own sin and need for forgiveness.
But I never craved the sacrament like I did as a kindergartner.
Near the end of college I started attending an Anglican church, where the Eucharist is the apex of every worship service. It was the first time I heard of the sacrament as mysterious and mystical, a process that could continually reveal deeper meaning about itself every week.
Around the same time, I began baking professionally. Always interested in the art of yeasted breads, I listened to Peter Reinhart tell the story of the steps of bread baking, highlighting the story of death and life--the death of wheat to become flour, the flour brought back to life through yeast, the death of yeast to become bread, the bread bringing life by feeding the world.
I found his telling of the story of bread as captivating as the story of Jesus. It was, after all, the Gospel that he preached from that stage. The Gospel in a manner that I can touch, I can knead, I can continually learn more and more about but never be able to fully understand. The story of a God that reveals Himself through even the tiniest micro-organisms. It is mysterious and mystical--the way that invisible yeasts bring flour back to life, the way that different times and temperatures and climates produce great variety in the flavor and texture out of the same 3 ingredients, the way that God is present when I break open a steaming braid and share it with my neighbors saying, "the body of Christ, broken for you."
As he told the Gospel story of bread, my whole body craved to feast on the Eucharist meal.
Every time I mix flour and water, every time I pull a communion loaf out of the oven, every time I hold my hands out to receive my portion, my body deepens further into that craving I felt as a kindergartner. I grow more and more convinced that I'll never "understand" it. But I don't actually think that's the point.
I long to touch the sticky dough, to feel the mysterious transformation that occurs when wheat is baptized by water. I long to savor the taste, to identify the layers of flavor in each bite.
As a baker, I am prepared to spend my entire life learning more about the art of bread. I can bake every day and still have more to learn. But every new lesson on gluten, or starch, or fermentation reveals something new about the Christian faith. Being a baker has taught me that I must also be prepared to spend my entire life learning more about the mystery embedded in my tactile tradition.
We follow a God that calls Himself the "Bread of Life," and so I guess it's fitting that the more I get to know bread, the more I get to know God as well.