The Leaven of Language

I love making artisan bread. It sounds fancy, tastes fantastic and yet is so simple to make. Every time, I wonder, “Why I don’t do this more often?” My basic recipe includes flour, warm water, honey, and yeast.

The yeast is a leaven. It literally permeates every molecule of the dough, consuming simple sugars and emitting carbon dioxide into the bubble gum-like gluten causing it to expand and rise, giving the bread texture and contributing to the flavor.

Leaven (or leavened) is mentioned 22 times in the Old Testament and 17 times in the New Testament. It is that property of something small entering into and changing the whole that is used as an analogy over and over, sometimes in a positive vein and sometimes in a negative connotation.

The easiest analogy to make is to compare leaven to sin. It is the small sins which we may discount which change our attitude and decrease our sensitivity to sin so that it becomes easier and easier to sin than to chose to act with virtue.

As the English language continues to evolve, we begin to use words in ways that no longer adhere to the original meaning. For instance, “adore” comes from the Latin, “ad” meaning to and “orare” meaning speak or pray, hence “adore” meaning to speak a prayer, or to worship. Adore is the veneration or worship due only to God. Yet, the synonyms for the word in common usage now include, “like, love, have a liking for, be fond of, be keen on, be partial to, have a taste for, have a weakness for, enjoy, delight in, revel in, take pleasure in, relish, savor, rate highly, regard highly.” A word which once directed us straight to God and our appropriate behavior to Him now is used to describe being “keen” on something. As we use words which once were reserved for God for created things, how does that language act as a leaven in our attitude towards God and our faith?

Today’s readings make a pretty convincing argument for a significant impact. In the Old Testament reading, the God who created us, knows us and loves us, looked at the whole of creation and saw how the leaven of evil had permeated the whole of humanity. The whole of humanity had been consumed with evil to the point where God “regretted he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved.” Through Noah, God stops short of wiping men out completely. Through that one man, He saves creation and expands upon his covenant from promising salvation to one couple to salvation to a family. Finally, Jesus comes to fulfill God’s covenant and provide salvation to all men, however, even while He is here to save us, Jesus still warns the disciples to watch against the “leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” The disciples are warned against sharing the destructive attitudes of the Pharisees and Herod toward Jesus.

How much of our attitude is influenced by our language? The word Pharisee means “separated out”. They set themselves apart to so that they could avoid contamination from those who weren’t “God’s chosen people”; most specifically the unclean Gentiles. Language is used to separate people in to “us” and “them” impacting human relationships. How does our relationship with God change when we speak of creatures in the same way we speak of our Creator? Ask God to send the Holy Spirit to enlighten your mind today to the words you use. Start with something familiar, like the Creed and spend some time really understanding the words that were chosen and the insight they provide us into who God is and who we are in His presence. Watch and see, how little changes in the leaven of our language open up our hearts and minds to the wonders God has waiting for us.

Now that is some powerful leaven for good.

If you catch Sheryl sitting still, you are most likely to find her nose stuck in a book. It may be studying with her husband, Tom as he goes through Diaconate Formation, trying to stay one step ahead of her 5th and 6th-grade students at St Rose of Lima Catholic School or preparing for the teens she serves as Director of Youth Evangelization and Outreach in her parish collaborative. You can reach her through her through