I have written before on the subject of bread. This Advent I was surprised to find the meaning of Bethlehem is House of Bread. This brings in so many other thoughts. Bread that is work of human hands ……
So there at the birth of Jesus there was the reference to bread. What sort of bread? Could it be a sweetened bread like a Danish, glazed and filled with fruit? A bread that explodes with flavour, maybe enhanced with spices? This bread is redolent of celebration but lacks the bitterness. It does not speak of sacrifice. No, not an enhanced bread.
Maybe it should be a simple tin loaf? Plain white flour, water, salt and yeast worked, proved and risen. Baked in the oven and turned out of the tin to cool on the rack, golden but simple. Bread that can be eaten, just warm, with butter. But then there is a worry to this simplicity. The loaf is created too easily. It may give us pleasure as it bakes with that glorious smell of baking bread but it is too quickly consumed. The need is fulfilled for today but that pleasure is transient.
Therefore together with the Holy Family we must again return to the House of Bread, to Bethlehem. What was the bread that was being baked there? It will have been made from locally grown grain. The farmer would have watched his field to judge the right time to harvest the grain, rolling the ears between his hands to release the grain and chewing on the seeds to assess their state. Today we would use an electronic moisture meter but then it was part of the grower’s skill to feel for this. The wheat, probably similar to spelt wheat, would be harvested. It would be threshed with flails, its’ body and ear broken, and then the grain thus released winnowed in a high windy place to separate the grain from the chaff. The grain produced would have a proportion of other grains from other grasses and weeds in the field but will be mostly wheat.
That grain would be ground into flour, probably in a rotary hand quern, producing a wholemeal flour from those mixed grains with a small amount of grit. The dough would be made using salt, maybe bought from the Dead Sea, olive oil, water from the well and the local yeast culture. Once kneaded and proved the loaf would be baked, probably in the communal village bread oven. The bread produced would be flavoursome, dense, wholemeal bead – very filling – but also a bread that would over time wear down teeth. It is a bread that is work of human hands. But then it is just bread to be broken at a meal.