Vida Scudder and the Showbread

Vida Bread

Readings for the Feast Day of Vida Dutton Scudder:

Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 25:1-14

John 6:37-51

This open-ended homily was preached by Daniel at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on Friday October 10, 2014. 

According to the Jewish Talmud, the Jewish high priests would keep 12 loaves of bread in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. It was called the lechem panim, the bread of the presence because it was kept in the presence of God. It is also called the bread of the face of God or the Showbread. Three times a year (at Passover, Pentecost [Shavuot] and Tabernacles [Sukkot]), the high priests would bring out the Bread of the Presence so that the Jewish pilgrims could see it. The priests would then elevate the bread and say to the people “Behold, God’s love for you!”

We are not sure exactly how the bread represented God’s love but many scholars of Jewish temple liturgy see most ancient Jewish ritual, in all of its complexities and even in all the blood, as an embodied way of communicating God’s self-giving love for God’s people. When blood was shed for the temple, it was God’s blood being shed for the people. And the bread of the presence, which was made in a very specific way, was somehow the embodiment of God’s love. God offered himself as bread to be pounded and kneaded and then broken and shared to show his love to his people and to feed his priests, who were then required on the Day of Atonement to offer themselves (through the blood of a substitute animal) to cleanse the temple and restore creation.

I share this because it illuminates the Gospel, which is Jesus speaking after feeding the five thousand. There were twelve baskets left over after the feeding, which is a clear reference to the 12 loaves of the bread of the presence. Jesus is saying, “You know that bread of the presence which embodies God’s love for you? That’s me! And I want you to eat this bread so that you can all be enlightened and empowered to be high priests and therefore heal creation through your self-giving love.”

I also share this stuff about the bread of the presence because it helps me understand what may have fueled Vida Dutton Scudder in all of her self-giving love.

Vida Dutton Scudder was a social welfare activist in the social gospel movement (early 20th century) as well as an English professor and one of the most prominent lesbian authors of her time. She wrote about Franciscans, St. Catherine of Siena, King Arthur, the Venerable Bede, the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross as well as Christian Socialism, liturgy and poetry.

While Professor of English literature at Wellesley College, Scudder became an active member of multiple societies devoted to prayer and service to the poor (the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross and the Society of Christian Socialists). She organized one of the first Federal Labor Unions and founded the Denison House in Boston, which offered education and social services to the poor.

In 1894, Vida had tapped out and basically had a nervous breakdown that lasted for several years. She was giving herself over to her writing and teaching and social outreach like a true self-giving high priest, but she got burnt out. Somehow she was not getting fed enough from the source of all self-giving love. Eventually, she recovered from her illness and utter exhaustion and then resumed her indefatigable ministry: organizing a Woman’s Trade Union, founding the Episcopal Church Socialist League and the Church League for Industrial Democracy, and then supporting a controversial strike of textile workers that almost made her lose her job. Her self-giving love led her to risk her own profession and wellbeing for the sake of others.

I don’t know how much Vida Dutton Scudder knew about the Jewish Showbread but she certainly understood how necessary it was for her to feed on the self-giving love of God in order to offer herself in love and sacrifice to others. Not too long after recovering from her nervous breakdown, she wrote, “Willingness to accept the death of God offered that we may live, to take the ever-renewed sacrifice into the ever-changing being which can otherwise not live at all, is the ultimate act of faith…It is the seal on the awful mystery of interdependence, the lie forever to all attempts to live a self-sufficing life. Existence itself is a continual Communion, in which man feeds upon the universal God.”[1] Existence itself is a continual Communion, in which we feed upon the universal God. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Clearly, the spiritual meaning and mystery of the showbread lives on in our Eucharistic bread, which is the embodiment of God’s self-giving love for us through Christ, the living bread. In order for us to offer ourselves in love and sacrifice to a broken and hurting world, we need to be fed regularly by the source of self-giving love. In some cases, in order to just simply exist, we need to be fed by God’s love. “Existence itself is a continual Communion, in which we feed upon the Universal God.”

 I’m wondering, in what other ways, apart from the Eucharist, do you feel fed by the source of self-giving love? What practices, disciplines, or activities nourish and empower you to continue your priestly work of love and sacrifice?

[1] Vida Dutton Scudder, Social Teachings of the Christian Year: Lectures Delivered at the Cambridge Conference, 1918 (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1921), 261.

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2 thoughts on “Vida Scudder and the Showbread

  1. I want to thank you for your sermon on Vida Scudder and the Showbread. i am going to quote a couple of sentences of it during a presentation I am giving in my elective class on the Oxford Movement here at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. You may be aware that this presentation may raise some eyebrows for a few different reasons. Your writing gave me a very clear way to put her ministry into perspective. Especially, the connection between the showbread and the Eucharist. Your parting question is one I would like to ask of a few people. I feel blessed to be fed by several different outreach activities and connections through various ministries. I would like to pose this question to my classmates, though, with your permission.
    Grace & Peace,
    Margaret Brack
    Senior ’17
    Mission Board President

    1. Margaret, I’m glad my sermon was helpful. Feel free to use as you please and thank you for asking for my permission. Many Blessings!

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