During our liturgical theology seminar at the GTU in the spring semester we spent a week or two discussing the great medieval allegorists like Amalar of Metz and William Durandus, who found rich (if often tenuous) symbolic meanings in almost every word and movement of the liturgy. The discussion got me thinking about the ways Episcopalians today tend to talk about, and to enact, the breaking of the bread in the eucharist.
I’ve been in places–and maybe you have, too–where the priest breaks a piece of bread quickly, almost violently, then holds it aloft while proclaiming triumphantly, “Alleluia: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!” It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the fraction rite is meant to be a reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross–especially if the sharp snap of a wafer lends its aural emphasis to the proceedings.
Sometimes this understanding is explicitly reinforced by teaching or printed material. I’ve seen bulletins with marginal glosses like this:
As the bread is broken, we take time to ponder the holy mystery of the Eucharist. The host, which is the large wafer that the celebrant holds up, has become the body of Christ, and now is broken, symbolizing for us Jesus’ broken body on the cross.
For those of us whose only (or main) experience of Episcopal liturgy has been with the 1979 prayer book, it can be startling to realize that the previous book didn’t include a fraction rite after the eucharistic prayer at all. Instead, the rubrics called for the priest to break the bread during the prayer, at the words “he brake it,” in keeping with Anglican practice since 1662.
By restoring the breaking of the bread to a point after the eucharistic prayer, the 1979 book restored an older pattern common to both Western and Eastern Christianity. It also helped make it clear that the eucharistic prayer is just that–a prayer, addressed to God–rather than a dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper in which the priest tries to mimic the actions of Jesus step by step. Instead, the entire prayer corresponds to the “giving thanks” of the institution story, and the breaking happens afterward, in preparation for distributing communion.
So far, so good. What’s interesting is the way this breaking of bread tends to attract different interpretations to itself. At its heart, it’s a functional action: if you’re using a single loaf of bread, it has to be broken in order to be shared. But even within the pages of the New Testament there are many theological interpretations associated with the fraction. For Paul it’s a sign of unity. In Luke it’s a moment of epiphany when Christ is recognized, hearkening back to the earlier breakings of bread in his earthly ministry. Later liturgical practice would see another theological interpretation begin to arise: if this bread that has been consecrated by prayer has become for us the body of Christ, then it’s natural to see the “breaking” of that “body” as in some way reminiscent of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.
Reminiscent it is indeed, and can be so in a very moving way, giving rise to all kinds of fruitful meditative possibilities: here is Jesus, giving himself for me and for all of us; why, even bread must be broken in order to be shared. It’s just like what he says in John’s Gospel: only if a grain falls into the earth and dies can it bear much fruit. God, give me the grace to give myself away in love as you give yourself to me . . . And so on. When we participate in the liturgy, we’re being immersed in a world of interlocking, overlapping symbols and metaphors that can combine and enrich one another in unexpected ways. This is a good thing. As Robert Taft points out, we can and must look at the same eucharistic table at different times and see it as “Holy of Holies, Golgotha, tomb of the resurrection, cenacle, . . . heavenly sanctuary,” and much more.1
Something different happens, though, when we take one of those reflections and pin it down as the meaning of the fraction. Soon the central purpose of the action–the sharing of a common loaf–gets lost, as do the core New Testament associations of unity and Christophany. Instead we can find ourselves in more allegorical territory, seeing the fraction as a ritual reenactment of Jesus’ death on the cross and the “breaking” of his body. This interpretation (John’s caveat about Jesus’ body not being broken notwithstanding!) became prominent in later classical and medieval understandings. From that symbolic interpretation, it’s a short step to the inference that what’s going on in the mass is the repetition, over and over again, of the slaying of Jesus at the hands of the priest.
This was the kind of interpretation Luther battled against. He saw the fraction rite as altogether optional and perhaps undesirable, since it lent itself to this somewhat gruesome understanding of a Jesus who had to be sacrificed over and over again, in contrast to the “once and for all” of the Letter to the Hebrews. Of course, by the time of the Reformation, the use of separate wafers rather than a single loaf at the infrequent times when members of the congregation received communion meant there was no longer a functional purpose for the fraction rite at all. And so, following the Reformers’ general vision, the Anglican prayer book tradition never had a separate fraction rite until the reforms of the twentieth century. The 1552, 1559, and 1604 books said nothing about any breaking of the bread at all.2 Then in 1662, when a series of manual acts was put back into the prayer, the breaking of bread was put there as one of them.
So here we are as present-day Episcopalians. We have an honest-to-goodness fraction rite for the first time since 1549; and for the first time since many centuries before then, we have a situation in which most of the congregation is in fact receiving communion each week. We are perfectly primed for a rediscovery of the breaking of the bread as a holy moment of epiphany and a tangible symbol of unity. And, yes: as long as we are speaking of bread as Christ’s body and then in the same moment breaking it, in a meal remembering the cross and resurrection, there will always be rich possibilities for meditating on Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice in connection with that breaking. But we do better not to canonize that secondary symbolic possibility as the primary meaning of the fraction.
Howard Galley, one of the framers of the 1979 prayer book, has noted a bit wryly that the drafting committee didn’t envision the unintended consequences that might arise from choosing “Alleluia: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” as the first recommendation for a fraction anthem. The phrase on its own can seem to reinforce the idea that the priest has just sacrificed Christ. Yet the text in its entirety carries a very different message. It is the first line of Pascha nostrum, a characteristically Anglican hymn that celebrates the resurrection in lines taken from Romans and 1 Corinthians. We sing the whole thing during Morning Prayer in Eastertide, and it is a ringing affirmation of the once-and-for-all nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, which needs never to be repeated–although at every eucharist we commemorate it, celebrate it, participate in its benefits, are incorporated into it:
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.
Christ being raised from the dead will never die again;
death no longer has dominion over him.
The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all;
but the life he lives, he lives to God.
So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia.
Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since by a man came death,
by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die,
so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.
- Robert F. Taft, “The Liturgy of the Great Church: An Initial Synthesis of Structure and Interpretation on the Eve of Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34/35 (1982): 74. [↩]
- The 1549 book does mention in its rubrics that the bread should be “devided . . . and distributed,” but without any ceremony; it is treated as a functional act of distribution. [↩]