Breaking of bread

Breaking of bread

Let us break bread together
By Chris McDonnell

Before it was decided that Sundays were better than Thursdays for the celebration of the Ascension and Corpus Christi, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday would have been the feast of Corpus Christi. And no matter the change to English, the title for this feast in Latin has somehow stuck, maybe because it is shorter that its replacement. But this year we have been told it will be celebrated on May 29th so we had better get use to it.

For those of you old enough to remember, the words “Let us break bread together…” come from a popular hymn of the 60s that is rarely heard these days.

In those few words there is a great deal of theology. First of all, we are enjoined to do something ‘let us’, an activity is envisaged that is to be done together. And what is to be done? We are asked to ‘break’ something. Now the word break is usually associated with damage, accidental or otherwise. But it can also signify distribution, a sharing of goods between friends. In the case of this hymn, we are told that we should ‘break bread together’

The sharing of bread is a custom that goes beyond our western world view in so many ways. One description for parents who earn money to feed their families is that they are the ‘bread winners’, those who ‘put bread on the table’. The family table is where, through our sharing, we gain nourishment, food for good health and an occasion of sociability.

With the erratic nature of meals times, resulting from the many and varied activities involving both parents and children, the sharing of a whole family meal is becoming a rare event. So is the conversation that goes with it, the chance to explore stories in the safety of a home, to build and understand relationships as they affect different ages.
A great loss cannot be replaced by a quick burger at the local takeaway.

Bread is a substantial basic food, coming in many textures, shapes and tastes. A loaf can of course, and usually is, cut, sliced and eaten. But occasionally, hands stretch across the table to break a piece of bread from a rough loaf, to eat as it is or to dip into soup. And others round the table do the same, each pulling away a portion of a shared loaf.

When all are finished, the bread board carries the remains of the meal, the crumbs from the loaf that we have broken together.

We are told that the bread on the table at the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his friends was broken, blessed with the words ‘This is my body’ and then shared round the table, each one present taking their portion. How much they understood at the time, we cannot tell. But it must have been enough for the men arriving in Emmaus to recognise the Lord ‘in the breaking of bread’.

In our celebration of the Eucharist we have lost this activity of sharing. The bread that is broken is now a clinical wafer that although it has convenience, has lost the elemental action that is clear in the breaking of bread. ‘The piece I that eat has been taken from the morsel that you have just taken, it is one shared loaf’.

The smaller the number at the celebration the easier it would be to enact the original table of the Lord, using not thin wafers but a loaf of bread that emphasises a sharing. Our understanding of the broken bread of the Christ and the shedding of his blood offered to us in a communal cup would undoubtedly bring home to us the true significance of the sacramental presence.

We could of course approach this part way, by only consecrating the larger altar breads that are usually the reserve of the priest. Occasionally when we receive the Eucharist, we find that placed in our outstretched hand is a quadrant piece from the priest’s host. A shared gift. But supposing it was always like that, suppose we always received a broken fragment and others receiving with us also took such a fragment that might make us reflect on the action in which we are sharing.

There is an oft-quoted statement ‘Food for the journey, not a present for being good’. Hands opened for a gift, stretch across the table, ingrained, worn by work, hardened by the graft of years, an act of sharing, one with another.

As we celebrate this weekend the transferred feast from Thursday to Sunday, let us break bread together as the Lord asked us to, and share with each other.