Why Do Orthodox Churches Use Leavened Bread For Communion?

Prosphora

In accordance with ancient apostolic practice, the Orthodox Church continues to use leavened bread for Holy Communion. Historically, the use of unleavened bread in celebrating the Eucharist dates to the 8th century. But why does the Church use leavened bread, when leaven seems to symbolize sin in the Scriptures?

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

The nature of leaven

Leaven is simply another word for yeast, a naturally occurring plant. In Christ’s time, the people understood that kneading flour and water well and leaving it in a cool place would allow the dough to rise over time. They also knew they could speed up the rising process if they saved dough to add to their next batch. (We call this a “starter”.) This was a good way to preserve yeast that made good bread, rather than leaving the dough out and hoping it would catch a good wild yeast instead of a bad one.

Once the yeast gets into the lump, it spreads throughout the lump without noticeably changing its color. Yeast is at the same time invisible and visible, since it changes the shape and texture of the dough. Leavened bread involves a lot of work and reliance on past bread making. Making unleavened bread is much easier by comparison: once you mix the flour and water, the bread is ready to bake in a short time.

Leaven in the Holy Scriptures

The main area of contention between Eastern and Western Christians regarding leavened versus unleavened bread is their use and symbolism in the Scriptures. Let’s take a look at some of the references to leavened and unleavened bread in the Old and New Testaments.

The Old Testament

Feast of Unleavened Bread

We first see leaven mentioned in Exodus 12-13, when the Lord institutes the feasts of the Passover and of Unleavened Bread. During this “feast”, the Israelites would commemorate the work of the Lord:

And Moses said to the people: “Remember this day in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out of this place. No leavened bread shall be eaten […] Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days. And no leavened bread shall be seen among you, nor shall leaven be seen among you in all your quarters. And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, ‘This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came up from Egypt.

Exodus 13:3, 7-8



In this commemoration, they eat unleavened bread as a symbol of their powerlessness. For without the Lord’s help, they would have remained in Egypt. It’s also important to remember that they ate unleavened bread because they were driven out of Egypt and had no provisions for themselves (Exodus 12:39). In Deuteronomy 16:3, unleavened bread is called the “bread of affliction” because the Israelites fled Egypt in haste. This reveals that the people did not plot this, but that God accomplished it for them.

The Passover

The Passover is another ceremonial recollection of the power of God in slaying the firstborn of Egypt, while passing over those who smeared the blood of the lamb above their doors. For the seven days of the Passover, God commands the Israelites to eat unleavened bread (Exodus 12:15). Note that this is not an indefinite commandment, but one limited to this particular commemoration.

Sacrifices

Scripture also specifies that leavened bread was almost never used for sacrifices (c.f. Exodus 29:23, Leviticus 8, Numbers 6:15-19); indeed, the only time the people offered leavened bread was for thanksgiving (Leviticus 7:13; 23:17). Leaven thus represents the works of the people, which they offer to God with thanksgiving. We can see here a clear thematic connection between this sacrificial thanksgiving of the Israelites and the Eucharistic thanksgiving that occurs at every Divine Liturgy.

Conversely, the connection of unleavened bread to sacrifice shows the penitential attitude of the people toward the sacrifice and the remembrance that forgiveness is the Lord’s, rather than a work of their own.

The New Testament

The Gospels

In the Gospels, we only see the word unleavened used in reference to the Days of Unleavened Bread (Mark 14:1, 12, Luke 22:1, 7, Acts 12:3; 20:6). Never does the New Testament admonish people to eat unleavened bread, nor does it specify that Christ or anyone else did so other than what was Lawful according to the season.

As for leaven and leavened bread, we find it used in two ways. First, we see the leaven associated with the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20). In these passages, we learn that the Kingdom spreads like yeast. And this is certainly true, for there is no outside change when we repent and become Christian, yet it somehow changes not just us but the entire world. Secondly, the Gospels use leaven as a symbol of the doctrines of the Pharisees, which lead to false works and condemnation (Matthew 16:6-12; Mark 8:14-21; Luke 12:1).

The passage from Matthew actually provides a stern warning not to take the symbolism of leaven too seriously. When speaking of leaven, Christ is not trying to make a point about bread. The likening to leaven reveals the strength of attraction in the outwards acts of piety by the Pharisees, something St. Paul will struggle against later. If we think about what leavening could mean, it brings up a whole spectrum of word pictures: the leaven of the Pharisees is old and therefore sourdough; it has spread throughout the Jewish community; it is complex and “puffed up;” and it is a great deal of work.

The Epistles

The symbolism of leaven as the Pharisees’ works fits with what St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Here, he urges them to put away the leaven that was their old ways. They have become “puffed up” with ungodly pride. They have even allowed members to carry on as they were before conversion in terrible sins. Like Israel, they are being called to put aside the old sour leaven of Egypt and start over. Notice that St. Paul speaks in the negative in this passage, which is why he invokes the unleavened image. He is asking them to fast from wickedness and remember the oppression of their sinful past, just as Israel does in the Passover. Additionally, we see St. Paul use the same leaven image Christ used in his parables against the Pharisees when addressing problems in Galatia (Galatians 5:1-10).

Leaven in the writings of the Church Fathers

Leaven is thus a powerful image in the Orthodox Church, and its positive or negative connotations as it relates to bread are completely dependent on context.  Many of the Holy Fathers made good use of leaven in the Scriptures to explain the teachings of the Church.

As Christians, we do not need to eat unleavened bread as a form of piety. While our Lord commands us to pray, fast and give alms, these actions alone do not please Him. In his Dialog with Trypho, St. Justin condemns the Jews for thinking this, instead requiring the people to remember the reason for the observances and live them daily rather than as just part of a schedule. Christians must not to fall into the deception that certain practices, if done perfectly, are somehow meritorious.

Instead, the Saints constantly call us to lay aside our old ways as with old leaven and start anew. This does not mean to remain unleavened (i.e., weak, inactive), but rather to take up new and godly activities:

Lay aside, therefore, the evil, the old, the sour leaven, and be ye changed into the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. 

St. Ignatius, Magnesians 10

Hear at least what Christ saith to his disciples, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like unto a woman who took leaven and hid it in three measures of meal.’ So that the righteous have the power of leaven, in order that they may transfer the wicked to their own manner of conduct. But the righteous are few, for the leaven is small. But the smallness in no way injures the lump, but that little quantity converts the whole of the meal to itself by means of the power inherent in it. So accordingly the power also of the righteous has its force not in the magnitude of their number, but in the grace of the Spirit.

There were twelve Apostles. Dost thou see how little is the leaven?  The whole world was in unbelief. Dost thou see how great is the lump? But those twelve turned the whole world to themselves. The leaven and the lump had the same nature but not the same manner of conduct. On this account he left the wicked in the midst of the good, that since they are of the same nature as the righteous they may also become of the same purpose.

St. John Chrysostom, Homily 3 On Demons, section 2

The Eucharistic service

After examining the symbolism of leaven, we must then ask why we shouldn’t use leavened bread. As we have seen, there is nothing evil in leavened bread itself. So let us now turn to the service of the Eucharist to help us understand why the Orthodox Church uses leavened bread for Communion.

In the service of Proskomide, the priest blesses the bread “in remembrance of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ”. Was Christ not full of the Kingdom of Heaven? Was He not full of the Spirit and good works to which the Fathers liken leaven? So long as the bread is not sourdough or made of coarse, cheap flour, there is no reason not to commemorate the Body of Christ with leavened bread.

The Eucharist as the first-fruits

And that the Savior received first-fruits of those whom He was to save, Paul declared when he said, “And if the first-fruits be holy, the lump is also holy,” teaching that the expression “first-fruits” denoted that which is spiritual, but that “the lump” meant us, that is, the animal Church, the lump of which they say He assumed, and blended it with Himself, inasmuch as He is “the leaven.”

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies , Book 1, ch. 8, para. 3



If the bread and wine we offer are a sacrifice, then they can only be likened to the first-fruit sacrifice of the Old Testament, since Christ’s death replaced all other atonement for sin.  And, as we recall, the first-fruit sacrifice was made with leavened bread, which is why the Orthodox Church uses it for the Eucharist. This is what St. Irenaeus implies by his mentioning of the first-fruits. We offer ourselves with the bread (i.e. the lump as the Church), but we are filled with Christ (i.e. as leaven). We cannot offer ourselves apart from Christ as an unleavened loaf, and so we use a leavened loaf to symbolize Christ within us as we offer the spiritual first-fruits of our lives.

The Lord’s Day is a feast of joy

Unleavened bread is connected with mourning, something totally inappropriate in connection with the Lord’s Day. The Eucharist is about the Resurrection as much as the Crucifixion, which is why fasting is forbidden on Sundays and liturgies are festive.

Keep your nights of watching in the middle of the days of unleavened bread. And when the Jews are feasting, do you fast and wail over them, because on the day of their feast they crucified Christ; and while they are lamenting and eating unleavened bread in bitterness, do you feast.
Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Book 5, Section 3, para. xvii

In the Orthodox Church, we do not eat the unleavened bread of bitterness on Sundays.  The strong memory of unleavened bread’s association with fasting and putting off old ways is not compatible with the Lord who had no “old ways” to put off and no sins to repent of.

What did Christ use at the Last Supper: Leavened or unleavened?

Many people fixate on the type of bread Christ used at the Last Supper. In the Orthodox Church, however, we do not concern ourselves with using the exact type of bread (whether leavened or unleavened) that Christ used at the Mystical Supper. The purpose of the Eucharistic is not to “recreate” or “reproduce” a past event. Rather, it is to participate in an event beyond time and space that continues to happen each time we celebrate the Eucharist in fulfillment of Our Lord’s command.

While the combined witness of the Scriptures draws a close connection between the Passover and the Last Supper, there is no unity between Gospel accounts as to exact chronology. Therefore, we cannot know for certain which type of bread Christ broke when He said, “This is my body”. His final meal with the disciples may have happened before the Passover, because He knew His death would fall on the exact day or before it.

We can therefore conclude unleavened bread is not specifically connected with the Eucharist. At the same time, we can also conclude that there is a strong connection between leavened bread and the symbolism of the Kingdom of Heaven. None of the Fathers seem to have any dread of leavened bread. Nor does Christ, since He never condemned one or the other.  And so, we can conclude that between leavened and unleavened bread there is a difference of symbolism, and that leavened bread has a more favorable meaning when we speak of Christ’s Body.

Conclusion

The Orthodox Church continues to use leavened bread in Holy Communion as the early Christians did. This use of leavened bread stems from the connection between leaven and the Kingdom of God, and the understand of the Eucharist as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Regardless of what bread Christ used, leavened bread more closely symbolizes Christ and the change He affects in our lives.

Keep Reading: Guide To Baking Prosphora (Holy Bread)

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