It is a story that
resonates down through the centuries. The breaking of bread has become the
central act of our mysterious, magical celebration of holy communion in which
we ask, as the prayer we sometimes use from Iona says, “as the bread and wine which we now eat and drink are changed
into us, may we be changed again into you, bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh…”
That’s big. Very big.
We are asking to become the very Body of Christ.
And in that moment, the breaking of the bread is not just a
necessity so that we can all eat it, but a graphic symbol of Jesus’ great act
of giving in which he allowed his physical body to be broken, and a symbol of
how we too must be broken like bread and poured out like wine in order to be
God’s gift of redemption to the world.
Us, with all our faults and difficulties, all our temptations
and times of blindness and fear… we are the ones who are called to become one
in the mystical Body of Christ and to be broken and given to feed the world, so
that it may be reconciled with God.
And just as the disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of
the bread, so in our symbolic meal of holy communion, we know God in a deep and
intimate way which is like no other.
We may not feel
presence. Sometimes it is rather mundane, just a dry wafer and a sip of cheap
port, not a very prepossessing act for coming into deep communion with the
divine. But we know that in that act we are somehow drawn into deeper relationship
with God, almost whether we like it or not… but in the act of walking up and
putting out our hands we are consenting, we are asking, we are willingly
participating in that deepest and most mysterious of activities; the sacrament of
the body and blood. The sacrament of holy communion with our God however we understand
him or her in that moment. The celebration of the Eucharist – the Great
Thanksgiving in which humans come as representatives of the whole of creation,
the planet, sun, moon, stars – the whole shebang – and give thanks for our redemption
and reconciliation with God in an act which is itself the redemption and
reconciliation of the world.
As with most aspects of Christian doctrine, there is a lot of debate
about how we understand God’s presence in the Eucharist. There are those who
believe that when they are blessed, the bread and the wine become no longer
bread and wine but the literal body and blood of Christ. There are those who
believe that the miracle, the transformation is in the faith of the believer
and so if you receive communion in a state of unbelief it is nothing more than
a tasteless wafer and cheap port. Then there are others who believe that God is
really present in the bread and wine regardless of how you happen to be feeling
or thinking when you receive it. Our eucharistic prayers are carefully written
so that you can make up your own mind and we don’t have to worry our pretty
heads about it.
I will go on record as believing in the real presence of Christ
in the eucharist. I don’t know how or when he gets in and though I think we
should always treat the blessed elements with deepest respect, I also believe
that if we spill them or otherwise make a very human mess, Christ can get
himself out again.
There are those who believe that the consecrated bread and wine
continue to host the deep presence of the Christ and that this presence can be
dishonored either carelessly or willfully. That is why it is my normal practice
to consume the leftover bread and wine in front of you all, so that there will be
no concern that Jesus is being dishonored. That is not always practical or possible
and so the altar guild are trained to either consume the leftovers themselves or
give them to the earth. It doesn’t take a priest to clean up and so when Ari
asked me for extra bread a couple of weeks ago I shared the leftovers with her.
There is one important difference between our reformed understanding
of the eucharist – a title which comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving –
and that of the western or Catholic church in the middle ages and it is important
to understand. To put it simply and starkly, the belief then was that the priest
re-sacrifices Christ in each mass. That is not our understanding. Christ died on
the cross two thousand years ago and he doesn’t need to do it again day after
day in churches across the world. His gift of himself in obedience to his
calling, his sacrifice, was good and efficacious once and for all. And so we
tend to avoid the word mass, in order to be clear that while we commemorate the
gift of God in the Passover lamb who is Christ, God giving himself in the meal
of redemption, it is our gift that we bring each eucharist – our gift or
sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
And it is in our offering of ourselves, it is in our offering of
our praise and thanksgiving to God, however weak our faith, however much we
doubt, that we join with the disciples on that road to Emmaus. And as God is made
known to us, God’s real presence, in the breaking of the bread, so we too say “were
not our hearts burning within us?”
And so I end with some more words form the Iona prayers:
table of bread and wine is the table of company with Jesus, and all who love
It is the
table of sharing with the poor of the world,
Jesus identified himself.
It is the
table of communion with the earth,
Christ became incarnate.
have much faith and you who would like to have more;
have been here often and you who have not been for a long
have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed;
is Christ who invites us to meet him here.