The Hands That Made the Meal: What the Supper Says About Ordinary Work
Many of us today take for granted the hard work of making bread.
Each week, we simply grab our pre-baked, pre-cut, mass-produced loaf and roll along to the next aisle to find some “fresh” salsa or a box of Cheerios. We rarely give a second thought to how this loaf came to be (unless, perhaps, like me, your intestines start a street fight with the gluten that makes bread so delicious). In Jesus’s day, however, bread was not nearly as convenient or effortless. The making of bread was an essential and time-consuming part of everyday life (and the bread was likely a lot better for it).
So how was it made?
Breadmaking for Beginners
The ingredients, of course, have always been simple enough: just wheat, water, and fire. The process, however, was much more involved. The only “machine” available was a large round rock laid on another large round rock, called a millstone. No, like so few things today, this was all done by hand.
To make bread in that day, someone had to first harvest the wheat (again, an entirely different exercise before the gas engine invaded our fields). Harvesters typically used a sickle, a sharp handheld tool used to cut husks of wheat. Someone had to separate the wheat from everything else and then pluck the edible seeds, one by one, from the husk. Next, someone took the seeds and ground them into a fine dust, called flour (with the previously mentioned millstone).
Then, someone had to mix the right amount of flour with the right amount of water to create the dough (can you imagine making this discovery?). Finally, after the dough sat for some time to rise (another major discovery along the way), someone bakes the dough over fire to make bread (almost certainly the most significant breakthrough in culinary history).
So, on the night he was betrayed, when Jesus broke and blessed the bread, his hands were not the first to touch that loaf.
What Jesus Does with Human Hands
Surely Jesus could have turned stones into some delicious rolls for his disciples, but he didn’t. No, someone had worked hard to make that simple, climactic, even cosmic meal possible. Peter Leithart writes of the Lord’s Supper,
When bread is set on the table, an agricultural and culinary science and technology lies in the background. . . . Mankind is given the creation not only to use its products in their natural state but also to transform them for the enrichment of human life; he is not only guardian of what is but is creator of what is not yet; making is not only to eat but to bake. The bread-maker is the creature who builds cities, sends probes to the edges of the galaxy, transforms sand into silicon chips. (Blessed Are the Hungry, 169)
“Jesus could have picked wheat and grapes, but he chose bread and wine, both products of human creativity and toil.”
Has any single moment paid greater tribute to the toil and labor of humanity, to the everyday work we each do to contribute to society? Jesus chose to serve bread for his great Supper — a product of labor and human effort. If Jesus could use wheat and water to feed and lead the church over millennia, what spiritual good might he do through the work of our hands? He could have picked wheat and grapes (or anything else from the garden), but he chose bread and wine, both products of human creativity and toil. Remember, Jesus knew well what ordinary work was like. His calloused hands bore the proof. He was driving nails long before they were driven into him.
By breaking bread, he dignified what fallen man could do with his hands — what you can do with your hands — and he anticipated what a redeemed humanity might be capable of.
Not So Ordinary Meal
Now, it must be mentioned, when Jesus serves bread and wine at the Last Supper, the menu didn’t come out of left field. Bread and wine had thick threads of meaning through Jewish history, specifically together in the Passover (which we’ve traced elsewhere), but even then, it seems significant that God served a meal made by normal human hands.
And not an elegant or extravagant meal, but an unbelievably ordinary one. How many times had Jesus eaten bread with his friends? They had it with every meal — literally hundreds and hundreds of times, multiple times in a day. As they ate that night, they did something utterly familiar, even mundane, and yet now scandalous and marvelous. Again, Leithart comments,
It is significant that Jesus chose as the sacrament of his kingdom one of the most common of human activities. . . . This suggests that the kingdom does not involve a cancellation of this-worldly concerns; it is not another world but rather this world transformed and transfigured. (165)
Jesus could have chosen any number of rituals by which we could have remembered his life, death, and resurrection, but he chose something we do (more or less) three times each day. And in doing so, he infused our ordinary lives with the supernatural: “Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). He also punctuated everyday life with an anticipation of the never-ending feast to come (Revelation 19:9).
In the Lord’s Supper, we eat the same kind of meal we’ve always eaten to remember that the short, simple, unremarkable life we have is fused with a profound and hidden purpose and potential. And we do so to remember that when paradise comes, it’ll be filled with hints of the short, simple, and beautiful lives we had here on earth. Heaven will be more like earth than we think (in only the best ways).
Why Not Water?
If this was meant to resemble an ordinary meal, why wine and not water? Why serve wine and not just some fresh grapes off the vine? Again, like bread, the choice dignifies what mankind can do and make — the process is every bit as involved and much longer, at least when done well — but we taste some distinct notes in the wine.
While bread has been an ordinary meal for centuries, wine has been preserved and served for special meals — for feasts. Wine pairs best with singing and dancing. “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104:14–15). When Israel was starving in the wilderness, God let bread fall from heaven; but when Jesus welcomes us to the marriage supper of the Lamb, he’s pouring wine: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). Leithart writes,
Jesus did not give his disciples grapes, but the blood of the grape, which is the creation transformed by human creativity and labor. Like bread, wine assumes a degree of technological sophistication, as well as a measure of social and political formation. Wine, however, is a drink of celebration and not mere nutrition. If Jesus had wanted to depict man’s relation to creation and to God in purely utilitarian terms, bread and water would have sufficed. This Bridegroom, however, changes water to wine, and in doing so, clarifies man’s purpose in the world. (170–171)
“Cup after cup reminds us that the Lord’s Supper is not a eulogy, but a toast.”
What’s that purpose? In both work and rest, to enjoy what God has made and done. Ultimately, to enjoy God himself (Psalm 43:4; 1 Peter 3:18). Cup after cup, the wine reminds us that the Lord’s Supper is not a eulogy, but a toast. It drowns the thorns and thistles we battle, and symbolically washes away the sin and shame we carry. The wine plays an old, raucous, and beloved chorus: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
Meal Worthy of a God-Man
When Jesus served the Supper, he was not throwing a pity party for all he would lose and suffer; he was setting the table for all we would gain and enjoy forever. This meal, like all great meals, deserves a certain weight and seriousness, but all the weight and seriousness serves the main course: a full-hearted, rest-filled, grateful joy.
By choosing bread, Jesus embraced the very basics of what it means to be human — the food that sustains ordinary lives like ours and the labor that puts that bread on the table. By choosing wine, Jesus anticipates the best of human life — the sweet rest that comes after a full day of hard work done well. Together, they’re the kind of meal worthy of a God-man, the kind of feast we could eat forever and yet always hunger for more.
Credit: Marshall Segal