Supper at Emmaus by Mura, Francesco de (1696-1782) / Italian Anonymous Gift / Bridgeman Images

The History of the Holy ‘Bread of Easter’

Why unleavened bread is used in the celebration of the Mass in the Latin Rite

0

The term Easter bread mostly conjures up images of unique, special bread that families bake at the end of Lent for sharing on Resurrection Sunday. While not so named, the original Easter bread, or Bread of Easter, is the bread Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper and on the road to Emmaus. This is the bread still consecrated by the priest, raised up, adored in imitation of Christ and shared with the faithful during every holy Communion. In the Roman rite, it is unleavened bread.

The Bible does not specifically say that Jesus used unleavened bread at the Last Supper, but there is a strong sentiment that such was the case. The synoptic Gospels all claim that the Last Supper took place on the first day of the feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Mt 26:17-19; Mk 14:12-16; Lk 22:7-13). Before the beginning of the feast, all leavened or fermented bread was removed from every Jewish household and only unleavened bread, made solely of wheat and water, was eaten; no bread made with yeast was in the house. Thus many theologians conclude that Christ would have used unleavened bread.

St. John, in his rendition of the Gospel, says that the Last Supper took place the night before the feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Jn 13), and some scholars argue that the bread would have been leavened. In any case, consensus and long tradition in the Roman Church are that the bread was unleavened.

The esteemed 20th-century theologian Jesuit Father Joseph A. Jungmann, in his book “The Mass of the Roman Rite” (Vol. 2), agrees: “There can be little doubt that the bread used by Christ our Lord at the Last Supper was the unleavened bread prescribed for the paschal meal.” (Ave Maria Press, $55).

Luke 24:13-35 tells us that, on the first Easter Sunday, Jesus broke bread with two of his followers that he joined on the Emmaus road. This bread of Easter was likewise unleavened because the feast of Unleavened Bread was still taking place.

Tradition of Unleavened Bread

The tradition of unleavened bread in Church history can be traced to the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1446 B.C. (cf. Ex 12). God instructed Moses and Aaron on how to prepare the Israelites to leave Egypt, how they should eat a meal that included the meat of a sacrificed, unblemished lamb together with unleavened bread and other specific foods. They were also instructed to place the blood of the lamb on their doorposts so the angel of death, who was “striking down every firstborn in the land, human being and beast alike” (Ex 12:12) would pass over the house of, and spare, the Israelites. Exodus 12:14-20 directs the commemoration of this event, the feast of Unleavened Bread, for all generations to come.

In the Book of Leviticus, the Lord, through Moses, commands the Israelites on how the feast of Unleavened Bread will be celebrated, including, “For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread” (23:6).

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Leavened vs Unleavened as Associated with Sin and Evil

Eucharist
Adobe Stock

The sacred Scriptures often associate leavened with sin and evil, while unleavened represents purity, simplicity, humility. During the Mass on Easter Sunday, the reading from 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 states: “Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Early Church

Despite evidence that Jesus used unleavened bread at the institution of the Eucharist and on the Emmaus road, it was leavened bread, with some exceptions, that was used for Communion during at least the first 800 years of the Church, both in the East and West.

The early Christians brought bread from home when joining to celebrate the breaking of the bread, or the Eucharist (not yet called the Mass). This was everyday leavened bread provided as a first-fruits offering to God. There was enough to be consecrated and distributed in the manner of the Last Supper, and also enough to provide for others in need, including the clergy. This was a communal meal with a Eucharistic celebration at the end. At that time, there were some differences among the Christian communities as to how these celebrations would take place.

On occasion, at least according to St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, those in attendance were sometimes more interested in eating than worshipping (cf. 11:17-22). There is also a story or legend that one woman laughed when she was offered “the body of Christ” because she knew this was the bread she had earlier baked in her kitchen.

Unleavened Bread as a Standard

As the Church grew and the liturgy developed, and to ensure the solemnity of the event, the Eucharistic celebration was separated from the communal meal. As a result, fewer of the laity baked bread for the divine services, and the clergy took on this responsibility. The clergy made unleavened bread, as this was the bread used by Christ; also, it lasted longer and was less crumbly. By the ninth century, unleavened bread was becoming the standard in the Latin rite. This change was a point of contention during the eventual schism between the churches in the East and West.

In 1054, the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, claimed that the consecrated unleavened bread used in the West was invalid and those using such bread were heretics. Soon Cerularius closed all the churches in the East practicing the Latin rite. At one church, the sacred Hosts were dumped and trampled on.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

LIVING BREAD STRENGTHENS

“But the Eucharist does not end with the partaking of the bread and blood of the Lord. It leads us to solidarity with others. The communion with the Lord is necessarily a communion with our fellow brothers and sisters. And therefore the one who is fed and nourished by the very body and blood of Christ cannot remain unaffected when he sees his brothers suffering want and hunger. Those nourished by the Eucharist are called to bring the joy of the Gospel to those who have not received it. Strengthened by the living Bread we are called to bring hope to those who live in darkness and in despair.”

— Video message to the National Eucharistic Congress of India, Nov. 12, 2015

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The objection over the bread was mostly a one-sided affair as the Latin-rite Church was less adamant about the issue. At the Council of Florence in 1439, attended by Eastern Church representatives, the bishops said: “The Body of Christ is truly confected in the wheaten bread, whether it be leavened or unleavened or not, and priests of the Eastern or Western Church are bound to consecrate in either according to the respective custom of each rite” (Session 6).

The leaders of the East did not accept this result even though their council representatives had agreed. Just over 100 years later, the Catechism of the Council of Trent confirmed that either bread was acceptable but emphasized that no one could unilaterally “transgress the laudable rite of his Church … priests of the Latin Church [are] expressly obliged as they are by the supreme Pontiffs, to consecrate the sacred mysteries with unleavened bread only” (Part II, the Sacraments).

Today, in the West, Canon Law 924 and 926, the GIRM 320 and 321 obligates the use of unleavened bread. Redemptionis Sacramentum (instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament, March 2004) reads, “The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there are no dangers of decomposition” (No. 48). Thus a uniform practice exists in the liturgy of the Latin rite.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Pennsylvania.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

History of Unleavened Bread

1446 B.C.
Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage
 
First 800 years of early Church
Leavened bread was used for Communion
 
Ninth century
Unleavened bread becomes the standard in the Roman rite
 
1054
The patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, claimed that the consecrated unleavened bread used in the West was invalid
 
1439
Council of Florence said, “The Body of Christ is truly confected in the wheaten bread, whether it be leavened or unleavened or not, and priests of the Eastern or Western Church are bound to consecrate in either according to the respective custom of each rite”
 
1545-1563
The Council of Trent “confirmed that either bread was acceptable but emphasized that no one could unilaterally ‘transgress the laudable rite of his Church … priests of the Latin Church [are] expressly obliged as they are by the supreme Pontiffs, to consecrate the sacred mysteries with unleavened bread only’”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe now.
Send feedback to us at PriestFeedback@osv.com