Christmas and the Bread of Life
by Benjamin Fiore, S.J., PAJ Religion Editor

December 2004

As holidays approach, we anticipate the tastes and smells in our kitchens, bakeries and food stores. We delight in sharing this year’s version of old favorites and compare them with our mother’s and grandmother’s. Years later we can almost taste them in our memories. Along with mushroom soup, marinated herring, pierogi, and naleszniki, bread marks the special character of Christmas. Who can forget the aroma of Christmas babka rising in a warm spot in the kitchen and then baking in the oven? Staying quiet was worth it when we were given a slice covered with sweet butter. Breads also mark the Polish Christmas in more solemn ways. Breaking the unleavened wafer, oplatek, by everyone at the Christmas table is a gesture full of healing and hope. No matter how chaotic it is to get the food and people to the table, the mood changes as everyone, from oldest to youngest, greets each other with wishes for the coming year and with apologies for past offenses. The peace of Christmas settles on all who take part in this simple gesture and they find themselves bound as family and friends in ways that go beyond speaking.

Bread and Christmas go together right from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem which means “house of bread” in Hebrew. In his ministry, Jesus showed himself to be the bread of life who came down from heaven for the faithful. At the Last Supper Jesus identified himself with the bread that he blessed, broke and gave, as he gave his life, for all people. In Poland the wafer is not just passed and eaten but also is made into decorations to adorn the house at Christmas with wafer symbols of the world and of stars. Wheat decorations in the Polish home also include straw under the tablecloth of the wigilia dinner to recall Jesus’ manger, Bethlehem stars woven out of wheat, and sheaves in the corners of the room, as table decorations, or hanging from the ceiling.

Why the emphasis on grains as food and as symbolic decorations? Here Poland’s pagan past and Christian present unite. Jesus said in the gospel of John “Unless the grain of wheat falls to earth and dies, it remains but a grain of wheat.” The birth of Jesus just starts his task to liberate people from the bondage of sin and alienation from each other and from God. His death and resurrection completes that task. The Christmas oplatek itself recalls the communion wafer, which memorializes the body of Jesus given for us. The grains have a further significance for the grains of wheat are both food and seeds ancient symbols of fertility. As such, they link the present bread with the wheat of the past ground into today’s flour and with the crops of tomorrow that will grow from some of today’s kernels. The family sharing the wafer recalls the generations past, and looks forward to generations to come. As you gather with your families to share Christmas foods and break the wafer together, recall your ancestors who handed on to you your traditions and faith, and look ahead in hope for a future where your sons and daughter will enjoy the world of peace which Christ came to give us all.

Wesolych Swiat bozego narodzenia i szczesliwego nowego roku.

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