‘In the Breaking of Bread’ – Chris McDonnell’s ‘Catholic Times’ column

In the breaking of bread

Chris McDonnell 

At the beginning of this momentous year, I compared the date with the phrase ‘20/20 Vision’, not realizing just how out of focus the year was to become. Now, as we experience these gathering days of Autumn, clarity is still lacking.

A frequently used phrase is that we have to get use to the ‘new normal’, as we try to adjust to the changing advice arising from almost daily government directives.

Along with many other public buildings, our churches have been shut during the period of lockdown, only recently coming back into use under strict COVID safety conditions of mask wearing and social distancing. The familiarity of the community gathering to celebrate the Eucharist has become a distant memory for so many. For myself I have been unable to share in a Eucharistic meal with fellow Christians since March, a long time indeed.

How have we experienced the emptiness of these weeks and months, what has been the consequence of our enforced hunger, both short term and long term? And how will we restore a broken pattern of opportunity?

Sometimes loss is a moment of awakening when, what we took for granted is removed, we realize the gift that we didn’t know we had. It can be a painful process of coming to terms with once presumed circumstance.

Many have become accustomed to virtual ‘attendance’ through Mass broadcast on the net. I have felt a little impatient that such an option is expressed by some as being the same as having shared the Eucharist as a community. For the elderly and the house bound there is undoubtedly a great benefit that supports them in difficult days. Yet the centrality of the action, the breaking and sharing of Bread, the body of Christ, in the shadow of his being broken for us on the Cross, is missing.

Maybe now is a good time to ask a few questions and to consider our answers with care.

The Eucharist that we celebrate had its origins in the Paschal meal shared by Jesus with his friends in the hours before his Passion. We are told that, when their Supper was over, he took bread, blessed and broke it and shared the loaf with his friends who were gathered round him at table.

There are two important aspects to this account – the breaking of Bread and the gathering of friends. The image that heads this article is distinct from that which we experience at Mass. The loaf is reduced to a circular wafer and those of us sharing the Eucharist are separate from the Table of the Lord. The layout of so many churches is akin to that of theatres, with an entrance foyer, the porch, rows of seating for the audience, the congregation and a distinct altar sanctuary, the stage. The wafer that is broken, is consumed completely by the priest, whilst others in attendance receive a small, separate wafer. The significance of the ‘breaking of bread’, ‘the sharing of one loaf ‘, is not apparent.

With our enforced abstinence, we have an opportunity to reflect on our actions and to appreciate what we, out of habit, have done so often without reflection over the passing years.

There are practical problems over the Breaking of Bread associated with the numbers in attendance. But then, the sharing of the Eucharist began as a family affair, a gathering of a small number of friends sharing the celebration of Passover.

In the early years of the Church, the Eucharist was a ‘house’ occasion where a small number came together. There, the Eucharistic sharing was led by the head of the house as those in attendance gathered together to share in the one loaf and the one cup. It was to be nearly three hundred years before priestly ordination took place. We hear that, at the last Supper, the loaf was broken and shared with the disciples with the instruction ‘to do this in memory of me’

Do we do this?

We are told – reading Paul to the Corinthians – that ‘we though many are one, because we have share in the one loaf’.

Do we share one loaf?

The teaching that is inherent in the sharing of the one loaf is lost if, in the liturgical action, it is not fulfilled.

The nearest we have come to those early Christian days were the house masses of the 60s and 70s and weekday masses in church where the small number of those present are accommodated on the sanctuary round the altar and the priest. There is an intimacy of occasion that is real.

So we should use this time to question the practice of years and ask how we might adapt it to the reality that we now share.

Liturgy has to be real. A renewed liturgy that speaks meaningfully to us after our weeks wandering in the desert has to be real. Our Pastors need to internalize the challenge: we cannot simply resume, we must renew. But did we not ‘renew’ in the 1960s? The simple answer is no, we only made a start, took the first tentative steps on a long journey.

Participation in the Eucharist has to be a lived reality, where we experience the gift of the Lord, one with another. Bread is the genuine article: the earth’s fruit, the work of human hands. If we want to celebrate the bread of life, we can at least begin our journey of faith with reality underpinning the religious image: some real bread as we know it, experience it, see and taste it in ordinary life.

Our liturgy makes the bold claim that we imitate one of the unique actions of Jesus – the way he used bread when he blessed it and thanked the Father – but do we imitate him when no one who is not ‘in’ on the game would ever think that our altar wafer is really bread?

Is it any wonder that liturgy seems far from real life for so many when, what it uses for bread, is so distantly removed from real bread?

Radical as these comments might seem, we could at least take tentative steps in the right direction. Would not the use of a number of large altar breads, blessed and broken at the altar of the Lord remove the evident distinction with what the priest does and what the people receive? There would be no need for small, pre-prepared, pre-formed shapes for distribution often taken from the tabernacle, when all might receive a particle from a larger bread ‘broken for you’.

Disturbance to a familiar pattern of living can be disruptive and disconcerting. It can also allow opportunity to look again at where we are and to ask searching questions. If we do so with honesty and integrity then this period of difficulty and confusion might become an occasion of fruitful understanding as we continue to share on our journey in faith.




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One Comment

  1. John+Kirwin says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write so well about what I have been wrestling with for years, and even more so these past months of pandemic. Virtual masses isolate the Breaking of The Bread and the sharing of the One Cup even more than our theatre settings. Pray that we return to the source, that we don’t miss this opportunity.

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