The Common Good
January 2014

The Miracle of Christmas Bread

by Rose Marie Berger | January 2014

"Food brings people together."

THURSDAY NIGHT is baking night at Panadería El Latino on 11th Street. Early Friday morning, the bakers pull their weekend supply of pan dulce from the ovens. Racks and racks of conchas, cuernos, and galletas—in eye-popping yellows and pinks—are set out to cool. The entire street is redolent with yeast, cinnamon, and sugar.

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From the outside this bakery looks like any another boarded-up building. “The only indication this isn’t a crack den,” one local points out, “is the overwhelmingly delicious smell of baked goods.” El Latino distributes to corner bodegas across the metro D.C. area. But, if you brave the exterior, you can get three sweet rolls for a buck. Bread of heaven!

Extending our tables to feed the multitudes is a practice Jesus asks us to imitate (Matthew 14:16). When Jesus hosted that feast for “more than 5,000” with “only five loaves and two fish,” it was called a miracle. But the mystery wasn’t in magic math. Rather this is a tale of two parties. In Matthew 14:13-21, the dilemma was that there was too little food and too many people. But in the preceding verses, there was too much food and too little humanity.

Matthew 14:1-12 tells the story of Herod’s birthday party. Here, only the upper 1 percent, the elite and powerful, are gathered in a setting overflowing with the rarest wines, mountains of meat, and the finest breads. But Herodias’ daughter demands a different dish. The main course is served to her on a platter: It is the head of John the Baptist.

These are the two “feedings” that Matthew juxtaposes. In Jesus’ time, the economic 99 percent are abused by a market system controlled by an unaccountable power. The disciples neither understand the enormity of the problem nor the blasphemy inherent in the system.

“Send the crowds away,” they say, “so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (14:15). The disciples still believe the “market system” will solve the problem.

According to New Testament scholar Warren Carter, at the time “the emperor, and through him various gods, [was] responsible for blessing the empire with adequate food.” Ceres, the goddess of grain, showed her approval of the Roman emperor by providing good grain harvests. But, as Juvenal contemptuously reminds, the government is trading cheap white bread for actual political power and distracting the people with “circuses.”

Jesus’ retort to his followers is categorical: “You give them something to eat.”

Jesus acts as host to a Great Picnic. The disciples are taught how to serve. Jesus makes them practice extending the table, sharing the bread (14:18-19), rather than doing it for them. Bread for all, Jesus proclaims! It is God’s will that hungry people be fed—but with a bread that satisfies.

The Christmas season is a time for feasting and celebrating. An English custom holds that a loaf of bread baked on Christmas Eve will cure the sick and heal the broken-hearted. An Orthodox table tradition requires the communal sharing of bread and honey. First, the host dips a small piece of Christmas krendel in honey and salt, then approaches each dinner guest, starting with the eldest. “Christ is born,” she says. “Let us adore him,” responds the guest.

“Food sustains and enriches our life and cultures,” writes Ched Myers, “yet when there is too little or too much of it, desperation or greed follow. Food brings people together, but also divides them. Table fellowship (with whom, and how, and what we eat) mirrors the inclusions and exclusions of the wider society.”

This Christmas, let’s fill our tables with simple foods. Set up extra chairs. Welcome the unexpected guest. Invite the stranger. Remind one another that Christ is born! And, when our bread is blessed and broken, call to mind Jesus’ mandate to all disciples: “You give them something to eat.” 

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at store.sojo.net), is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners senior associate editor.

Image: Traditional Mexican sweet bread, Nathalie Speliers Ufermann / Shutterstock.com

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