Why is the Communion host flat?
Altar bread changed over time, for various reasons
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Why is altar bread flat?
Hosts certainly don't look like bread. They don't taste like it. And they don't break apart like a loaf of bread.
Where did these little wafers come from?
The first thing to remember about today's altar bread - the hosts - is that they are unleavened bread. They contain no yeast - which makes bread dough fill with air and rise.
Modern hosts resemble modern matzo - cracker-like bread used by Jews at Passover and made from wheat and water. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls this type of bread azyme and notes that it was both the bread of affliction - since it could be baked "on the run" - and the bread made up for unexpected guests.
Wheat in Jesus' day was "choice flour" and not used every day. That daily bread - still commonly used in the Holy Land - is barley bread. And the Passover feast coincides with the start of the barley harvest. While the special Passover bread probably was wheat, the main table bread was probably barley.
"Passover bread" is distributed and eaten at the meal's end, as it was in the synoptic gospels and Paul's account of Jesus' Last Supper. To this day, Christians see a link between the Eucharist and the bread of that Passover night.
Early Christians followed the pattern of Jesus' last supper: a meal, followed by "the breaking of the bread" (Acts 2:42). Since the unleavened bread of "choice flour" - the Passover bread - was not common for everyday life, there seems not to have been an emphasis on the type of bread. Rather it was the sharing of the bread - most likely barley bread - that was important to the celebration.
These first Christian meals were full dinners. Some came to be called the agape, or love feast. Food was shared and, when bread was handed out, some was carried to those who could not attend - usually the sick. The bread was usually kept in boxes carried around the neck called arcae or chrismals. Whole loaves - probably before blessing - were stored in baskets, seen in art in the Roman catacombs.
As Christianity switched from a house religion to an official religion under Roman law in the 4th century, use of yeast-raised loaves continued, as did the practice of the faithful providing bread from their homes for the liturgy. Linen sacks joined baskets as bread carriers and for distribution after blessing - and the use of the paten (plate) became common.
(Records show the Emperor Constantine donated gold and silver patens to the Lateran Basilica - each weighing 30 pounds.)
For the Western church, things changed after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 8th century. (In the Eastern church, a single loaf of leavened bread is used to this day.)
Unleavened bread became preferred for various reasons. Most notable was an increasing view of the blessed bread as an object for veneration, and various vessels for storage developed. Since leavened bread spoils quickly, unleavened bread also made practical sense.
Bread was no longer provided by the congregation, but prepared by clerics and religious under increasingly strict rules. Host presses date to at least the sixth century, and made bread stamped with images and inscriptions. However, these were still larger and thicker than modern hosts, since each blessed host (about six inches in diameter) was still broken and shared by those gathered.
By the second millennium, reception of communion had become rare. (Many people felt unworthy to receive such a sacred object.)
In the West, unleavened bread for hosts became mandatory. According to Edward Foley, a liturgy professor at Catholic Theological Union, hosts came in two sizes - one for priests and a smaller one for communicants. By the 14th century, host baking became a completely regulated church business. Hosts were made with only water and wheat flour, and uniformly small, white and flat.
(Even today, most altar bread is baked by religious communities.)
With the reforms of Vatican II, the church made a conscious effort to return to earlier practices - and this affected altar bread.
As the Council said in its very first document - On the Sacred Liturgy - a restoration was needed: "In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. ... In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community" (n. 21).
To this end, the elements of Communion and the way they were handled were reviewed and revised. Results were mixed: good - as in reception of Communion under both species of bread and wine - and sometimes questionable - as in so-called "Wonder bread Masses."
However, the general desire of Vatican II was fulfilled: recognition that "the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may, but ought to be, changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it" (n. 21).
Today, Catholics expect to participate fully in the Eucharist. And this means sharing - "as befits a community" - the Eucharist.
The current General Instruction of the Roman Missal requires that the Eucharist "truly have the appearance of food. It is therefore expedient that the Eucharistic bread, even though unleavened and baked in the traditional shape, be made in such a way that the priest at Mass with a congregation is able in practice to break it into parts for distribution to at least some of the faithful" (n. 321).
Altar bread's appearance may change, but its foundation and purpose remain: "The Lord Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples."
(Sources: General Instruction of the Roman Missal; From Age to Age; The Catholic Encyclopedia; the documents of Vatican II; and Judaism 101 at www.jewfaq.org)