Liturgy Series Part 13

The 'breaking of the bread'

January 15, 2003
Denver Catholic Register


Our reflection on the Eucharistic celebration now brings us further into the Communion Rite. After sharing the sign of peace, which underlines our unity through the mystery of Christ and His Church, we focus once again on the altar. Several actions then begin to unfold.

This part of the Eucharist is called the "breaking of the bread." The priest takes the body of Christ under the form of bread and breaks it into two or more pieces. In early Christian communities, one loaf was sufficient and the symbolism of many grains of wheat forming one loaf strongly symbolized the one body of Christ, of which each individual was a part. Now, because of the great number of people in our parishes, several ciboria (sacred vessels) for individual hosts may be used, several large hosts or unleavened loaves may be broken into smaller pieces.

To maintain the symbolism of the one body, breaking and distributing from the consecrated bread of the celebrant to at least a few members of the assembly is a recommended practice. Only concelebrating priests or deacons may assist the celebrant in the "breaking of the bread."

This is also the time when the precious blood may be poured into Communion cups from a larger vessel. While in some places extraordinary ministers have distributed the body and blood into secondary vessels, the Church has never really permitted this practice. Only the priest or deacon does the distribution because they have been ordained specifically for service at the altar.

When the celebrant "breaks the bread" into two or more pieces, he drops a particle into the chalice containing the precious blood while praying quietly. What does it mean and what is he saying?

The action goes back very far in history and has had various meanings through the centuries. Originally, it may have had a cultural importance in ordinary meals: breaking off pieces from a large loaf and softening them with liquid in an arid land. The dropping of the particle of host into the chalice later took on a Christian significance for the very unordinary meal of the Eucharist.

In the early centuries of the Church, the pope sent out portions of bread consecrated at the Mass he celebrated to all the parishes in Rome to manifest the unity formed by the Eucharist. Each priest would take his portion and drop it into the chalice at Mass to ritually recognize the union. Over time, as the number of parishes grew, this practice became impractical and fell into disuse. Instead, a piece of the priest's host itself was dropped into the precious blood. Some feel that this symbolic act represents the re-union of Christ's body and blood, or body and soul at His resurrection.

Let's look more closely at the celebrant's prayer: "May this mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it." He asks that we may partake of the glorified body of Christ, the fruit of His resurrection. How often do we remind ourselves that the Christ who nourishes us in the Eucharist is the same Christ who lived, died and rose again — and we have been promised the same gift!

Simultaneously, while these actions take place, the assembly sings or recites the "Lamb of God." This chant accompanies the rite of the breaking of the bread. The words recall Jesus as the lamb of the paschal sacrifice and the triumphal lamb of the Book of Revelation. It's a wonderful weaving of the actions of the priest and the participation of the people affirming the sacrificial reality of the Eucharist.

The meal we are about to share would not have taken place without the obedient sacrifice of Jesus. The liturgy reminds us that it was His sacrifice which "takes away the sin of the world" — which has brought salvation to the world and continues to save us.