More than just a tiny, tasteless wafer

By Danielle Tumminio
Posted Jan 17, 2012
Danielle Tumminio

Danielle Tumminio

[Episcopal News Service] Last week, a clergy friend of mine introduced me to a video in which Baptist minister Gordon Atkinson undertook a communion bread taste test.  One by one, he slid expensive wafers and cheap wafers, gluten-free and wheat, out of their sleeve and into his mouth.

He tasted one type and announced: “It really has no taste at all…. Is that a communion bread that will offend no one?”  After reading the nutrition label on another, he said, “Fat: zero.  Cholesterol: zero.  Sodium: zero.  Carbs: zero.  Calories: zero.  Vitamin A: zero.  Vitamin C: zero.  Iron: zero.  Can you actually make food that has no nutritional value?”

Then he concluded with these words: “What are these things [communion bread] saying about the church? … If this is a symbol for who we are, it’s really a tragic one because it sort of like looks fancy and nice, but there’s no nourishment there at all.”

Now Gordon Atkinson is not the first to express wafer woes.  Clergy and lay people have long pointed out their flaws: Jesus didn’t use wafers at the Last Supper.  Thin wafers encourage the kind of self-denial that leads to eating disorders.  The simple wafer is as unsatisfying to the churchgoer seeking spiritual nourishment as fat-free ice cream is to the dieter craving a sundae.

Yet the alternatives are often unsatisfying as well: Pita and matzah hearken back to the kind of bread Jesus would have used at the Last Supper, but they’re a pricier alternative many churches can’t afford.  Asking congregants to bake bread each week could result in a rector making early morning runs for Wonder Bread at the corner store when the baker is sick or her oven breaks.  Some bread recipes are so crummy — literally — that congregants could raise the cup of wine to their lips and find specks of Christ’s body lying at its bottom.

Drives one to think maybe church leaders should ditch bread and wine for Hershey’s Kisses and Godiva liqueur, doesn’t it?

But if all of this explains why a majority of parishes use communion wafers, the answer is about as satisfying as Gordon Atkinson’s taste test.  So where does that leave us?  Is there nourishment in those fat-free, calorie-free, iron and calcium and vitamin-free wafers?

Maybe what Gordon Atkinson missed is the irony that in the end, how a wafer tastes isn’t really the point.  After all, it’s not bread we Christians worship but Jesus and the way Jesus transforms our lives in the world. For many churchgoers, there is something of Jesus in the bread, something that would exist whether the bread presented itself as a wafer or a high-end artisan bakery purchase.  And that something alters us and our relationship to God.

So the power of that bread is that, even in the form of a tiny, tasteless wafer, it changes us and empowers us to do God’s work in the world.  Sure, a tastier, richer bread might symbolize God’s abundance in a more literal way.  But these tiny wafers seem to say, “I offer you a simple gift.  I offer you a chance to look past myself and to value what I do.  If I tasted like I was just out of the oven of a Parisian bakery, you might forget that.”

As I sit at my desk and think about the Eucharist, about the many times I’ve held out my hands for those skinny, tasteless wafers, I also recall the priest who handed them to me, the person who passed the wine, the congregants standing at my side, and the God-given grace of which I am continually in need.  Yes, Holy Communion cannot take place without bread and wine, but it also cannot take place without community — without the love of God and neighbor.  And so even if the bread is without calories or carbs, iron or calcium, it is never as empty and hollow as Atkinson believes.  It is never without nourishment.

— The Rev. Danielle Tumminio lectures at Yale University and is the author of God and Harry Potter at Yale.  She currently serves as an interim associate at St. Anne in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Massachusetts.


Comments (18)

  1. Mary W. Cox says:

    I like your reflection on the inadequate/adequate wafer. Here’s a communion haiku:

    Crunchy Jesus–no
    stale white wafer–be in me
    Word worth chewing on.

  2. walter beaman says:

    Gen. 16: 12
    . . . in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God. . . . [I]n the morning the dew lay round about . . . And when the dew was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing . . . . And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was.
    And Moses said to them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat.

    1. John Dornheim says:

      And this pertains to the Eucharist in what way?

      1. John Kirk says:

        Um, the manna from heaven is seen as a precursor to the Bread of Heaven that is Christ. We learned it in Sunday school and I can’t count the homilies I’ve heard on it.

  3. Temmo Korisheli says:

    I think that “tasty” communion bread distracts from the inward and spiritual experience that to me is the quintessence of the Eucharist. The previous commentator inspires a haiku of my own:

    Sacrament, not snack;
    Leave my mind on heav’nly things.
    Lunch comes later.

  4. It’s not about the material wafer, it is about what is infused invisibly into it upon its consecration as the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. That nano-second of time when a plain, tasteless wafer and common wine, becomes the food and drink of unending life in Him. it is metaphysical, a divine mystery, a thin place if you will, that does not account for taste or substance except for the intangible that brings the essence of Him to us, symbolizing the grace and divinity of Him who first loved us. I am not surprised at the disdain some have at a wafer’s tastelessness in human terms but in my state of salvation and grace that He provided, who am I to complain about unending life in Him, regardless of the media in which it is gifted to me, to you?

  5. Jan Harbaugh says:

    Yes, and yet Jesus was about really living in the body and the Body, and if we delete all sense & taste & smell from the Eucharist & our celebrations, how do we join in the foretaste of the feast to come? Doesn’t it all then depend on our imaginations?

  6. Beth Anne says:

    I am really bad about being a “communion judge” each week after receiving communion I would think eww this is stale or yumm this is nice and soft. I have even run across churches that have “bread ministries” and every weekend they get together to bake the bread for that weeks services. But I think what has happened is we are losing the meaning of what we are receiving, Jesus.

  7. Margaret Johnson says:

    The first time I had bread instead of a wafer was 15 years ago at Mount Calvary in Santa Barbara. It was a profound experience — and is each time I return. I found myself truly “chewing” on the meaning of communion. I can appreciate that for some the real bread can be distracting, but it focuses me and the sacrifice of the Incarnation becomes tangible. When this bread is broken, I more fully sense the breaking of the body of Christ on the cross. As the Eucharist is a sensory as well as theological experience which engages my mind, body and spirit, I appreciate the taste and feel of bread with substance with both physical and metaphysical reality. And it reminds me to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord”.

  8. Jennifer Solberg says:

    I once helped my former mother-in-law make the communion bread for an Episcopal service and I found the experience to be deeply touching. It felt personal and to see the bread broken was very meaningful. It just seemed to make me feel closer to Christ on a more human level. I loved it and have not found it since.

  9. Leslie Nipps says:

    Of course the Spirit works through whatever medium we have at hand, but that is no argument for systematically stripping down the robustness of our symbols and rituals. It becomes, after a while, a docetist argument: matter isn’t important, only spirit. If we value the incarnation and the humanity as well as the divinity of Jesus, then having robust sacraments matters. “Let’s keep as little sensual feeling from interfering from our spiritual experiences”–does anyone not see the theological danger of this kind of praxis? Yikes.

  10. I’m reminded of Liturgical Theology class with Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox whose For the Life of the World [ http://www.amazon.com/Life-World-Sacraments-Orthodoxy/dp/0913836087 ] was written for a World Council of Churches Youth gathering a generation ago. It still speaks. I remember him challenging our anxious questions of what communion ‘meant.’ “O taste and see,” he’d say, “How does it taste?” I’m wondering whether there’s a devolutionary line of thinking and interpretation from the 8th century introduction of very ‘pure’ unleavened bread (the white disks) to Descartes’ reductionist argument that our thinking is the only dependable way of knowing we exist. How about Jesus presence challenging us to say – “I taste, I see, I touch, I hear, I love…” therefore I am”?

  11. We should not have to choose between tangible and intangible. These things should be congruent, and no matter how we rationalize the wafers, I think the taste tester has a point. I’ve been bothered by this in my parish, where I feel the wafers are inconsistent with the real community we have. Why are we using fake bread??? A couple weeks ago I heard a member of the altar guild lamenting stale wafers and speculating that someone “stocked up when there was a sale.” I asked if real bread had ever been used at our parish and was told, “yes, but…” what followed was the logisitical problems outlined in the above piece. She said if I wanted to take responsibility for the bread baking that would probably be welcome; talk to the rector. I’m left challenged because I believe that the reason wafers are used often does have more to do with convenience than theology or even tradition. Someone needs to step up, maybe it’s me? That could be the silver lining to my current unemployment. With more time than money, it is something I will be able to do even tho keeping up with our pledge has become a challenge. hmm… Can we say we care about Jesus if we don’t care about our most tangible symbol of Jesus?

  12. Carlos Mercado says:

    One of my fondest memories of my sailing friend, who was also a fine liturgical scholar, H. Boone Porter, looking at a large “priest’s host” and saying in his high-pitched Kentucky drawl, “I have an easier time believing this is the Body of Christ, than I do believing it is bread.” I favor the use of a decent leavened bread and a decent red wine as the outward sacramental signs. We do not need to spend great amounts of money on the bread and wine, but it should represent the best that that community can offer at that moment in time.

  13. I’ve been happily reflecting on colleague Juan Oliver’s two responses to this thread over in a conversation in the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission listserv – Juan noted that the reason no one calls wafers “bread,” is that everyone actually acknowledges that they’re not bread and will take about what they represent (both Body of Christ and, ironically, bread). So then he added that we’ve slipped to the strange position of enacting a ritual that clearly ISN’T a meal, but “symbolizes a meal” in a very intellectualized way.

  14. By way of confession, as a young person, I loved crunchy wafers and would steal them by the handful from my childhood church any time I could sneak in to the sacristy. What I think about them now – tastewise and as long as they’re crunchy – isn’t so much different. But the question for me as to do with the radical disconnect of wafer to the abundance of the elements – earth, water, wind, sun . . . I don’t think it’s possible to attach the symbol to Jesus without connecting it as well to an elemental theology, or, if we do – as we do often – it becomes a dangerously isolated anthropocentric ritual .

  15. You will love that I have been attending Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio since I left being a pastor in 2010. I’m right on the edge of becoming an Episcopalian, i think. If you guys will have me. Although I teeter back and forth between your communion and being a Quaker.

    But, I love the careful way in which the Eucharist is handled at Saint Luke’s. And you’re right. The taste isn’t really the thing at all. It’s much deeper. I still don’t understand it, really. But who does? 😉

  16. Russell Ayers+ says:

    are you people for Real…. ? this is the Body and Blood of the Christ, or is it your fatuous preoccupation with being religious, in some episcopal/baptist/ whatever sort of way…. i hold my more complete thoughts for 24 hours before posting…

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