Bread and Ashes

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

On the First Sunday of Lent each year we are offered a set of reminders, about Jesus, the world, and ourselves. They come in the form of the story of his temptation; this version from Mark’s Gospel is so pithy we could almost miss it, and the lectionary gives us the additional preceding story of his baptism to make sure the deacon doesn’t feel cheated.

Jesus, in any case, is tempted. Temptation usually gets spoken of as something more exotic or more sophisticated. People, we think, are tempted by luxury, by power, by pleasure, by excess – by what lies beyond the basic and the necessary.

In the longer versions of the story told by Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ encounter with Satan is elaborated to explore these things, and the tempter does indeed offer Jesus the power and the glory. In both cases however, he begins simply by tempting Jesus with – the bread.

Why then is Jesus tempted by bread?

Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff tells a story:

A woman of forty, but who looked as old as seventy, went up to the priest after Mass and said sorrowfully: “Father, I went to communion without going to confession first.” “How come, my daughter?” asked the priest. “Father,” she replied, “I arrived rather late, after you had begun the offertory. For three days I have had only water and nothing to eat; I’m dying of hunger. When I saw you handing out the hosts, those little pieces of white bread, I went to communion just out of hunger for that little bit of bread! The priest’s eyes filled with tears. He recalled the words of Jesus: “My flesh [bread] is real food… whoever feeds on me will draw life from me” (John 6:55, 57).

Like Jesus in the wilderness, the woman in modern Latin America is hungry. Even the token eucharistic wafer with its dubious aesthetics and food value is tempting. This when bread can become temptation.

Bread comes about, as the narrative of Genesis tells it, as a consequence of the fall – of loss of the Garden of Eden and its easy fruit. When God gives Adam and Eve their marching orders, bread becomes an ambiguous sign of life and death, of hope and of mortality; God says:

By the sweat of your face

   you shall eat bread

until you return to the ground,

   for out of it you were taken;

you are dust,

   and to dust you shall return.

These words that introduce bread into the scriptural narrative are, of course, the very ones that were used when some of us received the sign of ashes on Wednesday. We are dust – and bread is dust too.

While some of us were receiving the sign of ashes, seventeen people were being killed in a mass shooting at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – most of them young, and among them Carmen Schentrup, a 16-year-old youth leader from the nearby Episcopal Church in Coral Springs.

This has more to do with Jesus’ encounter and temptation than we might imagine. Again, and again, gun violence, like other forms of power mocks and competes with the power of God to save and sustain. The forces that cling to the right to arms imagine that violence is protection, and that infinite potential violence would somehow lead to peace, but this can never be true.

Guns aside, this is exactly and entirely the dynamic of Jesus’ encounter with Satan. Temptation is not merely indulgence, is it the willingness to exchange truth for falsehoods Based on our own supposed power. Turn these stones into bread; he may as well have said turn these ploughshares into swords.

It is not only in extreme cases like Parkland or the unconscionable defense of the proliferation of what destroys that we find our society refusing the love and power of God to save; whenever we make ourselves the arbiters of life and death, with walls and guns, with endless accumulation at the expense of others, and at the expense of the fragile planet itself, placing our own generation and its gratification ahead of the needs of the future of our own children and the earth, we succumb to temptation and make ourselves into false gods.


This is Jesus’ temptation as it is ours. Jesus goes into the wilderness with no possessions or power, no weapons, no protection other than the grace and love of God. Hungry and thirsty he confronts the tempter, who offers power and glory without cross and passion, in a situation where one could be tempted even by bread.

Bread is a gentler version of ashes; it comes from the earth as we do, by the sweat of our faces, and while it keeps us alive its very nature and origin from that same dust as we come from is a kind of sacrament, a sign of our fragility, dependence. That is its gift, not only the sustaining of our life but the reminder of our fragility and our need of the grace of God.

Again, and again, bread reprises this role as what keeps God’s people alive, and yet by implication reminds us of how close we may be to death. God’s gift of life is gift, not to be taken for granted.

In the Exodus story, to which our observance of Lent and Easter are also linked via Passover, the people take bread for the journey, without leavening it. Leavened bread in the ancient world could not be forced into an hour or two with yeast, but required a day or more to rise; “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading-bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.” (Exod. 12). The unleavened bread serves even now as a sign of deliverance – not because it is luxurious or delectable, but rather because it is basic to our needs. God’s gift of freedom is gift, not to be taken for granted.

Week by week we come to this eucharistic table and are fed with bread and wine – not a banquet at all, merely the staple foods of the ancient world, and even in token quantities. They are not the stuff of temptation for people who think they have enough. They are the sacrament of our mortality and dependence and of God’s grace given to sustain us. They are food for hungry people, who come here not for the spiritual icing on the cake of life, but who have come to understand that life is a fragile and beautiful gift, who know that life is sustained only by God, and want the new life Jesus, the true bread, gives.

The Very Rev. Dr. Andrew McGowan is dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut. This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on the First Sunday in Lent 2018.


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