14 February 2017

‘Bread is still the staff of life’ … but
‘Man does not live by bread alone’

The staff of life … 12 loaves of bread depicted in a fresco in the 17th century Kupa Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 8:14-21

14 Καὶ ἐπελάθοντο λαβεῖν ἄρτους, καὶ εἰ μὴ ἕνα ἄρτον οὐκ εἶχον μεθ' ἑαυτῶνἐν τῷ πλοίῳ. 15 καὶ διεστέλλετο αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ὁρᾶτε, βλέπετε ἀπὸ τῆς ζύμης τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ τῆς ζύμης Ἡρῴδου. 16 καὶ διελογίζοντο πρὸς ἀλλήλους ὅτι Ἄρτους οὐκἔχουσιν. 17 καὶ γνοὺς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί διαλογίζεσθε ὅτι ἄρτους οὐκ ἔχετε; οὔπω νοεῖτε οὐδὲ συνίετε; πεπωρωμένην ἔχετε τὴν καρδίαν ὑμῶν; 18 ὀφθαλμοὺς ἔχοντες οὐ βλέπετεκαὶ ὦτα ἔχοντες οὐκ ἀκούετε; καὶ οὐ μνημονεύετε, 19 ὅτε τοὺς πέντε ἄρτους ἔκλασα εἰς τοὺς πεντακισχιλίους, πόσους κοφίνους κλασμάτων πλήρεις ἤρατε; λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Δώδεκα. 20 Οτε τοὺς ἑπτὰ εἰς τοὺς τετρακισχιλίους, πόσων σπυρίδων πληρώματα κλασμάτων ἤρατε; καὶ λέγουσιν [αὐτῷ], Ἑπτά. 21 καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Οὔπω συνίετε;

Translation (NRSV):

14 Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ 16 They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ 20 ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ 21 Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’

‘Bread is still the staff of life’ … the façade of Frank O’Connor’s former bakery on North Main Street, Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I sometimes wonder at the way little changes in life despite supposed progress and innovation.

Boots on North Main Street in Wexford was Frank O’Connor’s bakery in my more youthful days. The bakery dated back to 1860, and closed in 1979. But the initials FOC can still be seen on the facade, and the slogan still remains: ‘Bread is still the staff of life.’

The constant and witty response from one friend as he passed that shop in North Main Street was: ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’

One is a popular proverb that many assume is a Biblical quotation; the other is a Biblical quotation, that appears once in Deuteronomy and twice in the Gospels.

The Gospel reading for the Eucharist today in the Church of Ireland Lectionary reflects the importance of breads in daily life in the time of Jesus and the Disciples – it was truly the staff of life.

The Kupa Synagogue in the Old Jewish Quarter was one of the many synagogues I visited in Kraków a few weeks ago. There, I was surprised to find a wall painting or fresco of 12 loaves of bread and even more so that they were described as ‘sacramental.’

To what degree is this morning’s Gospel reading for the Eucharist a sacramental reading?

When the disciples are rebuked for forgetting to bring any bread with them, it is not just a matter of everyone in the group going hungry for a little while. The Greek verb used here (ἐπιλανθάνομαι) for ‘to forget’ conveys the sense of negligence rather than memory loss. I am inclined to read it as describing a wilful decision not to remember to bring bread rather than some forgetful lapse of memory.

And the Greek word used here to describe to bring or to take (λαμβάνω) describes not the process of buying bread, or putting it in your shopping basket or a picnic hamper. It describes laying hands on it.

Taking, blessing, breaking and giving … essential acts of giving and receiving, Eucharistic acts.

Bread is still the staff of life, and encountering Christ in the breaking of the bread, in sacramental living, still brings and gives life.

The church is the boat, and not merely forgetting but neglecting the opportunity to share the staff of life in the Church, for me, is one of the weaknesses I find in a church that professes to be a church of word and sacrament.

On a positive note, I wanted to finish with the Collect and the Post-Communion Prayer of the day. Two days before Saint Valentine’s Day today [14 February 2017], I was delighted in the churches in Castletown and Rathkeale on Sunday morning [12 February 2017] with the coincidences provided by these prayers, bringing together love, discipleship and the Eucharist:


Almighty God,
who alone can bring order
to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity:
Give your people grace
so to love what you command
and to desire what you promise;
that, among the many changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave Jesus Christ to be for us the bread of life,
that those who come to him should never hunger.
Draw us to our Lord in faith and love,
that we may eat and drink with him at his table in the kingdom,
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was prepared for a staff meeting on 14 February 2017.

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