Bread: It matters which kind becomes the Eucharist
Mike Aquilina says there are many good reasons why we use unleavened bread at Mass . . .
Unleavened bread is one of the main features of the Passover. It commemorates the Israelites’ hasty exit from Egypt: “The dough they had brought out of Egypt they baked into unleavened loaves. It was not leavened, because they had been driven out of Egypt and could not wait. They did not even prepare food for the journey” (Ex 12:39).
In memory of that Exodus, the Israelites were to celebrate the Passover for a week every year. During that week only unleavened bread was allowed. “When the Lord, your God, has brought you into … a land flowing with milk and honey, you will perform the following service in this month. For seven days you will eat unleavened bread, and the seventh day will also be a festival to the Lord. Unleavened bread may be eaten during the seven days, but nothing leavened and no leaven may be found in your possession in all your territory” (Ex 13:5-7).
Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover at the Last Supper. “And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Lk 22:15-16).
So we know that the bread used at the Last Supper was unleavened bread. Our Christian Eucharist follows the pattern laid down by Christ at the Passover meal. We repeat, as far as practical, the circumstances of Christ’s meal with his disciples, including unleavened wheat bread.
The bread must be unleavened, and it must be made of wheat. It can’t be leavened wheat bread, and it can’t be unleavened bread mixed with other grains so much that we can no longer reasonably call it wheat bread. Communion wafers meet these requirements, which is why most parishes use them.
In theory there’s nothing to prevent another kind of unleavened wheat bread from being used. But because it becomes the sacred Body of Christ, the priest has to be very careful not to lose crumbs of it when it is divided.
Concerns have been raised by people with celiac disease who can’t digest gluten. Low-gluten hosts can be used, but not gluten-free hosts. Wheat is the essential matter; wheat flour with the gluten reduced can be substituted without invalidating the sacrament. But with no gluten at all, it’s really not wheat bread anymore.
If it’s not possible to arrange for a low-gluten bread for Communion, or if your body can’t take even the tiny amount of gluten in a low-gluten wafer, remember that Christ is completely present in both elements. Speak to the priest about receiving only from the chalice.
This column is reprinted with permission from “Understanding the Mass: 100 Questions, 100 Answers” by Mike Aquilina (Servant Books, Cincinnati, 2011).
The essential signs of the Eucharistic sacrament are wheat bread and grape wine, on which the blessing of the Holy Spirit is invoked and the priest pronounces the words of consecration spoken by Jesus during the Last Supper: “This is my body which will be given up for you. …This is the cup of my blood…”
In the Old Covenant bread and wine were offered in sacrifice among the first fruits of the earth as a sign of grateful acknowledgment to the Creator. But they also received a new significance in the context of the Exodus: The unleavened bread that Israel eats every year at Passover commemorates the haste of the departure that liberated them from Egypt. …When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he gave a new and definitive meaning to the blessing of the bread and the cup.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #133-134