Christopher Smith wants to go out for tea
This is a funny Lent, isn’t it? I did rather hint to the congregation here that this year might not be the time to impose the strictest disciplines on ourselves, given that we’ve all got to keep sane somehow at the moment, though without going back to the cup-cake nonsense of 2016.
So I am trying to impose a bit of discipline over my consumption at the moment, to make up for having abandoned my penance last year at about this point. Needless to say, I had a few treats before Ash Wednesday, including a trip to the chippy. And somehow, I suppose because this was comfort eating, I felt it needed the accompaniment not of anything resembling a vegetable (which I suppose ought to have been mushy peas) but of bread and butter. As I said to my lodger in a pathetic attempt to justify my actions, it was a reminder of younger days, when few dishes were regarded as incapable of being enhanced by a slice or two of bread and butter. Having recently been reading a very entertaining book about food – Scoff, A History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler – I was aware that there has been a bit of a ‘thing’ around bread and butter. As Gwendolen said to Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, ‘though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.’
Bread and butter constituted the main foodstuff of afternoon tea for several generations, and the disparaging reference to cake in Oscar Wilde’s play is an indication that it was bread and butter which was considered the luxury, not cake, and the thicker the bread was cut, the better. For the majority, it was the evening meal; for the better off, it was what filled the gap between lunch and dinner, and its relic now is to be found in the bread roll that comes to you when you sit down in a restaurant, perhaps with butter, but often, disappointingly, with oil and balsamic vinegar.
A simple meal of bread and cheese has long been part of our culture, even if Mrs Gaskell thought cheese fit only for the kitchen. She may have associated it with poor labourers, and would no doubt have been astonished at the price we pay for anything decent nowadays, but also, I suspect, at the quality available if you know where to find it. A friend of mine is convinced that it isn’t really ‘U’ to have cheese after supper. I think he and I agree that, if it must happen, it should happen after pudding rather than before, but if I’m eating out, I quite like to have cheese in preference to pudding. One day, I must point out to him that the last course on the Titanic was dessert, which followed pudding, and which consisted not only of fruit but also cheese.
Bread, if not cheese, is something that we do tend to take for granted, and there is an irony in the modern, middle-class preference for brown bread over white, given the history. As Pen Vogler says, ‘Ideas of social status and the colour of your bread went back to Roman times or before. Juvenal wrote that the lord’s bread was snowy white and it was up to the rest of the household to “know the colour of their bread” and therefore their place.’ The rich man in his castle ate white bread; the poor man at his gate ate brown.
Yet the one place where simple bread carries no social identifiers is in church, and our practical preference for bread in wafer form rather than in an actual loaf gains in egalitarianism what it loses in sign value. Indeed, in a year without the chalice, we might have been pondering this in a way we haven’t previously. Even if the sign value is incomplete, the Lord, we are reminded, is not divided between Bread and Cup; the reality of the sacrament is fully present in each—the whole person of Jesus, who is human in his flesh, blood and soul, and divine in his one substance with the Father and with the Holy Spirit.
And if Jesus is not limited by time and space in the way he comes to us, neither is he limited by our human understanding of his abundance. An entire congregation is fed by a few penn’orth of bread; five thousand are fed by five loaves and two fish. At the very beginning, those first followers of Jesus were given a glimpse of the heavenly banquet, at which all those who seek him can be fed. How privileged we are to be able to give honour to our Saviour, in the abiding memorial he has left us of himself – his whole self – until the end of time.
Ordinary, ‘bread-and-butter’ things take on the most profound meaning at the heart of our divinely instituted worship. Left to work it out for themselves, human beings tend to make worship as complicated and bloody as possible. But Christians are given the injunction simply to ‘Do this in memory of me’. We are drawn up into Christ for the building-up of his Body; the Sacrament does not disperse Christ among the faithful, it unites the faithful in Christ. The Church offers, and in that offering is offered. So the Eucharist makes the Church, and the world is brought under the mercy of God. Bread and wine become our supernatural food; the true purpose of creation is revealed; and, as E.L. Mascall once said, ‘the Church’s redemptive life, like a river in flood, overflows its formal boundaries and irrigates the surrounding land’.