The Breaking of the Bread

Through all the changes of history, the basic pattern of the Liturgy of the Eucharist has remained the same because it is based on what Jesus did at the Last Supper and commanded the disciples to do in his memory.
Christ took the bread and the cup of wine and gave thanks to God for them; he broke the bread and shared the bread and wine with his disciples. At Mass we take the bread and wine at the preparation of the gifts, give thanks to God for them and for the whole work of salvation in the eucharistic (or thanksgiving) prayer, break the bread and pour out the wine (the ‘fraction’ rite), and give the bread and wine as we share communion.,
The breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine for communion is one of the central moments of the liturgy. The early Christians named their Sunday worship after this ritual. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they believed Christ was revealed in “The Breaking of the Bread”.
Up until the fraction rite at Mass, there is a single plate with the bread and a single cup of wine on the altar. Only then is the bread broken and distributed into smaller plates and the wine poured into the cups.
That is why astute readers would have had a problem with the photo that the editor chose to illustrate the piece I wrote recently about the elevation of the elements, because in it the presider is holding the bread in two separate pieces. At the showing of the elements to the people after the institution narrative and in the elevation during the doxology at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, there is still one loaf and one cup.
The bread is not broken as the words “he broke the bread” are said because the Mass is not a re-enactment. Mimicking the details of what Jesus did and said at the Last Supper historicises a mystery which transcends time and place. Liturgy is never an historical pageant.
The breaking of the bread is often overshadowed by an overly-long sign of peace and complicated choreography with plates, cups and communion ministers.
Ideally, the presider stands quietly at the altar waiting for the communion ministers to take their place. The assembly’s sign of peace is completed and all eyes are focussed on the altar. The presider raises the bread for all to see, breaks it and the singing of the Lamb of God begins. This music is not a way of closing off the sign of peace; it is connected with the ritual action. The bread is broken in such a way that all can see what is happening. It is done slowly, deliberately and reverently, symbolising our being broken and shared for the life of the world.
After the bread has been broken, the wine is poured into cups for distribution. Contrary to typical practice, the Lamb of God is not a set of three units but continues during this entire action, so the music minister needs to be attentive. Only when the presider is standing still before the plate and cup is the litany concluded with its final “grant us peace”.


Elizabeth Harrington