GRAFTON, Mass. (RNS) — Bread tells a story of death and resurrection. It is at the heart of Christian tradition — the staple of the meal eaten to remember Jesus’ self-sacrifice. So what does this mean for the gluten-free?
According to the Vatican, if you can’t eat wheat, then the body of Christ is not for you. Last week, the Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed its stance that bread used for Holy Communion must contain enough gluten that it can be made without the use of additives.
Even as a bread-loving baker whose arm is tattooed with two stalks of wheat, I cannot agree.
Materiality matters. The story of Genesis reveals a God who carefully crafted the physical world, forming the “adam” (human being in Hebrew) out of the “adamah” (soil). From dust we humans came and back to dust we will return.
When water hydrates the dry dead dust of flour, proteins and starches in wheat immediately come back to life. Enzymes uncoil starches, releasing sugar for the yeast to eat. Glutenin and gliadin, the amino acids that make up gluten, weave together to build a powerful net. Yeasts feast on the sugars in wheat and fill the bread with the breath of life. As the acids form bonds, tension builds between the dough’s desire to be both plastic and elastic. Over the course of a few hours, the soupy mass begins to strengthen into stretchy dough. This tension captures carbon dioxide gas and allows the dough to grow.
The dough must die in order to become bread, giving itself up to the flames of the oven. But in its death, it has become the staff of life. The most basic food throughout all of human history.
When Jesus calls himself the bread of life, he means that the story of bread directly mirrors the story of his own life. When Jesus asks his followers to remember him in the breaking of bread, he asks them to honor the tension of the plastic and the elastic. The tension of following a God of both law and abounding grace.
Materiality matters because the narrative of God’s work in the world is woven into the touchable, edible aspects of creation. But part of that narrative is that right now this world is broken and separated from its initial intent. This world is one where allergies are real.
Communion loses the symbolic depth of its material makeup when taken using gluten-free bread. Of course, unleavened bread fails to capture the beauty of fermentation too; yet Jesus’ lack of yeasted dough is rarely questioned. This is because for Catholics and liturgical Protestants, the ritual is never merely an act of symbolism.
It is the mystical and the physical communion of Christians with one another and with God. To Catholics, the process of transubstantiation turns the elements into the literal body and blood. To Protestants, the specifics of the sacrament vary; still, most agree that Jesus is present in the breaking of the bread.
But just as the physicality of the bread and wine can draw a community together, it can work powerfully to divide as well. To keep those who cannot eat gluten from consuming the body of Christ limits them from participating fully in the life of the church.
While those who study the chemistry of bread can appreciate the symbolic beauty of gluten, the symbolism means little if Jesus’ presence does not actually break down the divisions that keep Christians from joining in communion with one another. Jesus blessed and broke the bread because of its ability draw his followers together. And so the tension of gluten could teach us, too, that for the sake of those with allergies, we can look for Jesus’ presence even in the absence of wheat.
Only by resting in the tension of our differences — our desire for the plastic and the elastic, for law and abounding grace, for tradition and the full communion of sinners and saints — will the church continue to grow.
There is no barrier to walking with Christ — especially not an allergy to gluten. We must let go of the symbolic beauty of wheat in lieu of the deeper beauty of full, physical communion.
Jesus abides in the breaking of bread, even among the gluten-free.
(Kendall Vanderslice is the head baker at Simple Church in Grafton, Mass. She blogs about the intersection of food, faith and culture and is writing a book on dinner churches and embodied theology to be published by Eerdmans. Follow her on Twitter @kvslice)