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In the baking of the bread: making the bread that becomes Christ's Body gave me a new appreciation for the Eucharist.

WHEN I WAS A SOPHOMORE IN COLLEGE I TOOK PART in a treasured ritual every Sunday night. Around 9 p.m. I closed my textbooks, shut off my computer, and shuffled down four flights of stairs to the cozy communal kitchen in the residence hall where I lived. I unlocked the small metal padlock affixed to a white wooden cupboard next to the refrigerator. I pulled out a bag of wheat flour, a jar of honey, and a container of salt, and poured warm water into a measuring cup.

To those who poked their heads into the kitchen on those nights, I might have looked like someone who was a little too protective of her study break snack. But I was preparing the eucharistic bread for our dorm's 10:30 p.m. Mass, a process that I grew to cherish week after week.

After a long day of reading and studying, I found the process of mixing, kneading, and shaping the bread soothing--almost meditative. I liked giving my mind a break while putting my hands to work. As I used a knife to score the flat, round loaf into small squares, I was conscious of the number of young women the bread would need to feed that night--around 70. I felt in some small way the responsibility of ensuring that my peers would be nourished, and their faces often came to mind as I made the bread. Sometimes my dormmates would walk into the kitchen while the bread was baking and, smelling the aroma, would say, "Mmm, Mass must be starting soon!"

The practice of baking bread for the eucharistic celebration is as old as the church itself. In fact, one of the most ancient names for the Eucharist is "the breaking of the bread." The New Testament describes the first Christians as devoting themselves "to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). St. Augustine wrote that "his mother let no day pass without bringing her offering [bread] to the altar." While the breaking of the bread was certainly a communal event, the baking was, too, since it was often baked in village ovens.

Jesus gave a new and transformative meaning to bread when he shared it with his disciples and said to them, "This is my Body." The gospels' accounts of the Last Supper describe it as a Passover meal, which means that Jesus and his disciples would have used unleavened bread, the bread the Jewish people shared to commemorate liberation from Egyptian bondage. The gospels do not tell us who baked the bread for that Last Supper, but I like to imagine the women who may have done so, preparing the bread with great care and reverence, not unlike the nearly 30 cloistered communities of religious women who bake altar breads today.

Many parishes coordinate their own bread-baking ministries, with parishioners taking turns baking the eucharistic bread for Sunday liturgy. Often the preparation instructions include a prayer to say before the baking process. To use parishioner-baked bread at the Mass seems much more meaningful than the use of machine-made altar breads. In addition, homemade bread fulfills the General Instruction of the Roman Missal's injunction that the eucharistic bread should "truly have the appearance of food." And how fitting that the baptized members of the Body of Christ are the ones to make the bread that will become the Body of Christ--the bread, as the presider says, "which earth has given and human hands have made."

Jesus knew that bread, which requires both nature's bounty and humanity's labor, was the perfect food to feed the world until the end of time, and thus it has a special place on the tables in our churches and our homes. (Sorry, low-carb loyalists!)

I DON'T BAKE ALTAR BREAD ANYMORE, BUT I DO BAKE BREAD at home whenever I can. The mixing and kneading still feels meditative, like forming a prayer with my hands. In the midst of the clink of metal measuring cups, I'm reminded of St. Benedict, who told his monks to "regard all the utensils of the monastery as if they were sacred vessels of the altar."

As much as I love the baking process, however, I maintain that the best part of bread-making, spiritual benefits aside, is tasting that first, warm slice fresh out of the oven. Now that's a foretaste of heaven.

By RENEE M. LAREAU, a special correspondent for the food section of The Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio.
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Title Annotation:practicing catholic
Author:LaReau, Renee M.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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