Broken bread, broken curse: thoughts on Corpus Christi and the fire at Grenfell Tower

There is no bread in the Garden of Eden. The menu is confined to the fruit of plants and trees, with bread appearing only after the Fall[1]: as part of the consequences of human disobedience and our ejection from Paradise, we will earn our bread through hard labour and the sweat of our brow. Bread is therefore contentious stuff, tainted by banishment and curse, a constant reminder of what should have been, and of the need to get things right.

 

Admittedly, the Hebrew Bible does offer a variety of images in which bread is entirely positive. It ‘strengthens the heart’[2] and symbolises God’s blessing.[3] It expresses gratitude, mercy and love;[4] or contains an invitation to safety and security as Boaz draws Ruth into marriage through the age-old allure of a picnic[5]. So the curse of the bread can be broken, though never for long. It is never universally positive. Its status as the hard-won food of rebellious humanity is echoed by the Prophet Hosea who denounces faithless Israel as a mother who takes bread from a succession of worthless lovers.[6] In similar vein, the bread given with the ‘mess of pottage’ by Jacob to Esau in exchange for his birthright, is a symbol of betrayal, of loosening the ties that should be held in highest honour.[7]

 

But by far the most potent reference to bread in the Old Testament is the unleavened Passover bread eaten by the Hebrews before their escape from slavery in Egypt to life in the Promised Land.[8] Then, as the wilderness brings hunger and complaint, God provides them with manna (the superabundant ‘daily bread’ that returns symbolically in the New Testament in the stories of the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus.[9]) But even this gift goes wrong as the travellers try to hoard it, perhaps fearful that the Lord will not manage to maintain the supply. To no avail: their personal stash goes bad, ‘breeding worms and becoming foul’.[10] If the curse is to be lifted, hoarding is not the way.

 

The Passover was transplanted into the Christian Church as the celebration of the Eucharist —reading the scriptures and sharing in broken bread together.[11] For the first two hundred years or so, the Eucharist was a real meal, shared by all members of the socially-diverse Christian community. Sadly, it did not take long to be subverted: within a few generations, the remembrance of the Last Supper was divorced from the shared meal: rich and poor could apparently no longer live together and drink from the same cup. Even as early as St Paul’s day (50s CE) things were going wrong. He berated some of the Corinthians for coming to the common table with bulging hampers from which they ate and drank to excess without any consideration for the poor around them. This was eating and drinking to their own condemnation.[12] If hoarding brings rottenness, greed brings judgement. The curse remains.

 

The whole question of rich and poor equitably sharing the resources of the community was thrown into unbearably sharp focus last week as dozens of the poorest citizens of our capital city were visibly and audibly incinerated (the day before Corpus Christi) as a tower block in North Kensington was engulfed by fire.

 

It was noted that Christians and Muslims were among the very first to open their doors to offer food and shelter, and to coordinate the distribution of clothes and other gifts that came from all corners of an openhanded community. This was not surprising. Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast know as surely as Christians fed by the Eucharist that the bread’s curse can be erased only by generosity. This is what St Paul taught at Corinth: Christ is made present only in the sharing of bread with the hungry and the maintenance of community with all neighbours in their need.

 

This is the fundamental truth to which we must cling as we try to digest the events of a horrific year (from Westminster to Finsbury Park, via Manchester, London Bridge and North Kensington).

After the initial horror and the swift response of kindness at Grenfell Tower, there now follow justifiably angry questions concerning the sense of priorities that allows such diverging outcomes for rich and poor in a magnificently affluent city like London in 2017. The prosaic detail of the tragedy, with its litany of absent sprinklers and hoses and composite cladding priced at so many pounds a square metre, illuminates with cruel banality the obscene fact that some human lives merit a greater price tag than others. We have drifted so far from a basic recognition of the dignity of all people, to establish a set of values by which some are provided with the last word in luxury and fire safety technology, while others are reduced to living in accommodation whose standards of health and safety do not begin to approach acceptable levels of adequacy.

 

This appalling event followed just a week after a general election which saw a completely unexpected rise in young voters, and an equally surprising demand for a society run on very different lines. New voices emerged, seeking government ‘for the many not the few’ and a functioning safety-net of housing, health and social care to be provided by a taxation system that recognises the immense disparity between rich and poor.

 

Now this is a tale as old as civilisation and those who have followed the politics of our nation will have seen governments of all parties come and go with little or no lasting change to the status quo. It is even tempting to find strange comfort in an exhausted pessimism. But tragedies like Grenfell Tower (the public enquiry may find other words to describe it) can play a part in changing things. It seems that this has not been the experience in the US after New Orleans, but things here do begin to feel different after a spring and early summer of unsettling, heart-wrenching events. People are talking with urgent and unsilenceable voices about ‘love’ and ‘support’, of watching out for each other, whether in the sphere of national security or the quality of our welfare state. And while all of this requires the foundation of a strong and healthy economy, the old electoral mantra of ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ may well be changing (as the bishop of Burnley recently suggested) into ‘It’s the relationships, stupid’. The prospect of a fatter wallet may be losing its hold on us as we maybe, just maybe start to envisage a radically reordered society. It’s the sort of society some have called the kingdom of God.

 

Perhaps, then, there has never been a more important time to observe and reflect on Corpus Christi. We have seen that bread hoarded goes rotten. Bread eaten greedily brings judgement. Only bread shared joyfully with all our neighbours lifts the curse of Eden and brings Christ into the world.

[1] Genesis 1.29; 3.19.

[2] Psalm 104.15

[3] As in Genesis 14.18.

[4] Exodus 2.20, Genesis 21.14; 45.23.

[5] Ruth 2.14.

[6] Hosea 2.5.

[7] Genesis 25.34.

[8] Exodus 12.8.

[9] Exodus 16.8; Matthew 6.11; 15.35.

[10]  Exodus 16.20.

[11] Acts 2.42; Matthew 4.4; 26.26.

 

[12] I Corinthians 11.20-29.

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