Remembering Peter Matthiessen, Visionary Naturalist and Literary Mentor
“For we were strangers in the land of Egypt…”: Passover, Radical Empathy, and Reconciliation

Companions for the Holidays: Sharing the Bread of Life

By S. Brent Plate

Christianity would not exist without bread. Or if it did, the tradition would be in a form unrecognizable to Christians then and now.

A companion is someone we share bread with. That’s what the word companion literally means: from com meaning “together,” and panis meaning “bread.” When company comes over, we break out the bread. Bread is a pervasive symbol of being together, of gathering, of community, a symbol that we engage, chew, taste, swallow, and digest in the presence of others. Historians of social life are clear that commensality, eating together, has been vital to ongoing political power, and peaceful coexistences, while a Moroccan proverb tells us, “By bread and salt we are united.”

In the first few centuries of the Christian church BYOB was the norm. Worshipers brought their own bread and wine, contributing to the community life at large, sharing with their companions. The elements were blessed through prayers, and the faithful ate and drank. Whatever was left would be distributed to the catechumens (those undergoing a preparation course for admittance to the church, but not yet full members) and members who were absent. These leftovers were initially called the eulogia. A eulogy is a blessing, but in this initial usage it is about the object blessed, which in many early uses was specifically communion bread. Before there were words of blessing, there was bread of blessing. By the fourth century, Christians were sending eulogia to each other as symbols of their union, their life as the body of Christ. The Eucharist eventually became so central and centralized that not just any bread would do. It needed to be authorized and maintained by the clergy, and thus grew the altar bread tradition that protected the quality of the breads, ensuring they were made with pure, natural water, of wheat flour only, and baked.

Christianity would not exist without bread. Or if it did, the tradition would be in a form unrecognizable to Christians then and now. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the town’s name literally meaning the “House of Bread.” In Hebrew, the term lechem is generally translated as “bread,” but also is used to refer to food in general throughout the Bible. Bread becomes a synecdoche of food and connected to good life. This relation of the part to the whole unfolds to encompass an even larger idea, as bread becomes the symbol that stands for life itself.

Into the House of Bread is born the Bread of Life. The Jesus of John’s Gospel says, “I am the living bread which came down out of heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: yea and the bread which I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself in the language of bread. Ultimately, at the Last Supper, Jesus identifies himself with the bread and wine. With his disciples he observes the Passover seder, taking the bread and wine, telling them to eat of it, and saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” As with the Jewish tradition, Christian memory is not some type of thinking we do with our brains; it is something we enact through our bodies. Memory is ingested, chewed, and swallowed.

[Adapted from A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, published in March by Beacon Press.]


BRENT_PLATE-byJosh_McKeeS. Brent Plate is the author of A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, now available from Beacon Press. He is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Religion Dispatches. His books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends.