Bread, the Universal Language

Anne Songhurst, “Still Life with Bread”

Spiritual Sunday

Much of Jesus’s rhetorical power was poetic: he took simple objects and used them as images to convey spiritual truths. Thus his parables are filled with things like lambs, mustard seeds, fig trees, coins, water and—our focus today—bread.

In today’s Episcopal service we read the follow-up to John’s account of the loaves and the fishes (6: 24-35). After he has performed the miracle (see last week’s post), Jesus is followed by the multitudes, who ask him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Since the barley loaves of the recent miracle are on their mind, Jesus uses bread to signal a greater spiritual reality: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Of course, during the Last Supper Luke (22:19) tells us of Jesus breaking bread with his apostles and telling them, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” This moment, of the corporeal becoming spirit, is enacted during Christianity’s Eucharist rituals.

Here’s a poem by Linda Pastan that works a similar kind of spiritual transformation on bread. Bread, for Pastan, is a foundational life force, an energy at the core of being. Just as the smell of freshly baked bread can conjure up, as if by magic, moments of childhood being when we were purely and completely in the moment–fresh bread has this transcendent power–so all the ingredients in the bowl point to the emergence of breadcrumbs that (unlike the plot line of “Hansel and Gretel”) will lead the children home.


By Linda Pastan

“It seems to be the five stages

of yeast, not grief,

you like to write about,”

my son says,

meaning that bread

is always rising

and falling, being broken

and eaten, in my poems.

And though he is only half serious,

I want to say to him

“bread rising in the bowl

is like breath rising in the body;”

or “if you knead the dough

with perfect tenderness,

it is like gently kneading flesh

when you make love.”

Baguette . . . pita . . . pane . . .

Challah . . . naan: bread is

the universal language, translatable

on the famished tongue.

Now it is time to open

the package of yeast

and moisten it with water,

watching for its fizz,

its blind energy–proofing

it’s called, the animate proof

of life. Everything

is ready: salt, flour, oil.

Breadcrumbs are what lead

the children home.

Note on the artist: Anne Songhurst’s many bread paintings can be found at

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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