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
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.