You take some flour and some water, mix it together, leave it out on the counter for a while – maybe a few days – and it is going to start to change, as wild yeasts that are just floating around in the air find their way to the mixture. The flour and water will begin to bubble as the yeasts feed on the sugars in the flour and the process of fermentation begins. Eventually, you add more flour and some salt, and let the yeast continue to do its work: the fermentation continues, the dough rises, and you can bake your bread.
You take some grapes and you crush them and you leave the juice out in a barrel, and that juice is going to start to change, as wild yeasts that are just floating around in the air find their way to the grape juice, which will begin to bubble as the yeasts feed on the sugars in the grape juice and the process of fermentation begins. Eventually you make wine from this fermented juice.
You don’t take the flour and the water, mix it together and just eat it - that is wallpaper paste. You let it change first! And you don’t take the grape juice and just drink it (not if you have any sense, anyway). You let it change! These things are better after they have fermented and changed.
Saint Mark’s was founded a few years before Louis Pasteur’s work was published, showing that the fermentation in bread and wine and other things is the product of the work of living organisms. And by the 1880s - just around the time scientists were coming to understand how the anciently employed process of fermentation works; just as they were beginning to understand that the bubbling levain used to make bread is alive, that the bubbling must used to make wine is alive – this parish began to celebrate the Mass every single day, as we have done ever since.
You take these simple things and you let God work with them, and they are changed.
You need four ingredients to have a Mass. You need bread and wine, you need the Gospel, and you need the people of God. You bring all these ingredients together, and you mix them up inside a Gothic revival building, and you let them sit there for a while. Maybe an hour or two, or a day or two, or a decade or two, or a century or more. Something starts to bubble when these ingredients come together. And it’s not wild yeasts this time. It’s something about the way the Gospel of Jesus Christ goes to work on the people of God that starts a process of fermentation, and, by God’s grace, we are changed. We begin to look beyond our own selfishness and start to think that maybe we are being called to feed others, to celebrate with others, to rejoice with others, to care for others. We begin to come to grips with all the ways we need to change, and we start to seek forgiveness from our neighbor, and from God. We begin to see that the stories of limitation and failure we have told ourselves are transformed by the message of hope. We begin to see that we don’t need to be wallpaper paste – that if we let God do his work on us, we can be transformed into wonderful bread! And we don’t need to be grape juice – that if we let God do his work on us, we can be transformed into fabulous wine!
Fermentation is becoming something of a fad in the food world, but it has been the model for Christian life since long before science even understood how it worked, before we knew that the bubbling levain and the bubbling must were actually alive in a meaningful sense, and that being alive is what changed them. You don’t settle for what you were when you started this process. You don’t come and sit here in this hot sandstone cauldron hoping that nothing will ever start to bubble. You come here for the bubbles, for the fermentation; you come here for the change. Wallpaper paste and grape juice will not do; you come for bread and wine. And the old you – the old us – will not do either. We come for whatever new thing it is that God is making of us now!
And do we need science to tell us that whatever makes this process happen is alive? Do you even need me to tell you that the bubbling, the fermentation, the transformation that God is effecting all takes places because a living Word goes to work on a living people? We feast on that Word and it begins to convert us, to ferment us, to change us, and transform us, and make us into something new. And behold, we become the Body of Christ. We are alive in Christ, and being alive in him is what changes us!
You take some bread and some wine, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And you take the people of God – take you – and you mix them together, and let them sit, for just a while. And it is not long before things are bubbling, and God is at work, forming again the Body of Christ, and changing everything in the process, because he is alive, his Word is living and he has changed us and given us new life, too!
Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia