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August 8, 2003
Friday's eMo is a meditation on the lectionary texts for the following Sunday's Eucharist. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is needed.


My first baking with yeast took place when I was about fifteen. I was alone in the kitchen -- my mother did not bake with yeast, and both my grandmothers were dead: there was nobody to tell me how. Hot Cross Buns was what I was going to make, and I knew what they would be like: tall and fragrant, studded with raisins and tiny bits of peel. Something went wrong, though -- even now, I cannot say what it was. The buns were not tall and light. They were small and leaden, as flat as hockey pucks. I sighed and painted a white icing cross on each one anyway, and my father said they were very good. Nice and chewy. He was a fine man.

That was long ago. Today my rolls balloon to the proper volume without being asked, and they are mildly famous in my family, to the extent that major feasts are not considered complete without them. The living yeast fascinates me still, though, all the more now that I know how to manage it.

Crumble it into a cup of warm water and stir a little: within minutes, it has begun to breathe, to swell, to soften and come to life in its medium of warm water. Little plant spores, that's what yeast is: waiting in their package until you come along with warmth and water and remind it that it's alive. Mixed with the flour, it begins to feed on it as well, growing and swelling still more, so that when you come back to the bowl in which you left it a couple of hours ago, it has become a gorgeous dome, rising right out of the bowl. Punch it down, in an unforgettable moment of childish fun, and the legacy of its swelling is everywhere in its texture: elastic, smooth, irresistible. And then form it into loaves and leave it alone and it swells again, even more this time, twice as fast. Nothing can stop it.

Except that's not all there is to it. In order for there to be bread, the yeast must die.

In every place where a microscopic yeast spore balloons to many times its own size there will be a pocket of air, left there by its death. A yeast-shaped hole. A bread oven is hot -- 450 or 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The yeast spores do not survive it. They give their lives for the loaf of bread.

And yet their memory is everywhere in the loaf. They shaped it. Their bodies gave it the power to rise. You even taste and smell them, still, though they are gone: their warm malty flavor is what makes yeast bread different from other bread -- from crackers, or biscuits, or muffins.

This is my body, given for you. It cannot be at all unless I give my life for it. You are the body. You and me and the bread, we are body together. And I am in you, and you in me.
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