Saturday, October 29, 2011

One bread?

Although Christians celebrate their sacramental meal, the Eucharist or Holy Communion, with bread and wine, the ways they use that food and drink are sometimes distinctly odd. Paper-thin wafers unlike any bread you will find elsewhere, and fortified wine you'd never otherwise drink, are often the order of the day.

Someone has irreverently but tellingly remarked that "the problem isn't believing that they're the body and blood of Christ, it's believing that they're bread and wine". There is more to be said about these forms, and some of it has already been addressed here.

The contemporary Anglican liturgy with which Percy is most familiar cites the words of the apostle Paul at the "fraction" or breaking of the bread at the Eucharist:

"We who are many are one body in Christ, for we all share in the one bread" (1 Cor 10:17).

All eucharistic rites known to the writer have some provision for the breaking of the bread, which is a feature not only of the Last Supper stories understood by Christians as instituting the Eucharist, but also of other feeding stories in the Gospels, such as the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the risen Jesus' meal with disciples at Emmaus. The Acts of the Apostles uses the phrase "the breaking of the bread" as a way of referring to the earliest communal meals celebrated by the Christian community. The great twentieth-century liturgical scholar Gregory Dix saw this as one element of a four-fold pattern characterizing eucharist rites: bread is taken, blessed, broken and distributed.

The participant in the Eucharist may often receive something in their hand that shows no sign of this. Although many worshipping communities have moved to adopt forms of bread that really can be broken, others continue to use individually-stamped wafers which say nothing either about the "one bread" or the meaning of its brokenness. The fraction is then practiced only with the "priest's wafer", a slightly larger bread that allows visual communication of the fact that (some) bread is broken - but then also underlines clerical privilege in a not-too-subtle way.

The apostle's affirmation that we share from the one bread is not a mere liturgical rubric, but an observation about the character of sharing and communion. Participation with others in this one bread is a kind of solidarity with them of a profound and serious kind, with implications for love and justice. Augustine of Hippo commenting on this same text from 1 Cor says, strikingly, "be what you see, receive what you are" (Serm. 272).

These implications are not removed by the failure of our liturgical symbols to convey them adequately, of course. But liturgical practitioners have an obligation to ask whether their practices go beyond mere repetition of accepted custom, or maintenance of a certain sober dignity, to allow adequate reflection of their core message.

Percy is not one of those liturgists of whom it is joked that they, unlike terrorists, do not negotiate. There are more serious matters for the Church than the aesthetics of bread - such as the hunger of many in the world, who have insufficient bread of any kind. However the Church has opportunities to connect its liturgy with the needs of the world, and should take them when it can.

What to do with the bread, then?

Percy suggests a hierarchy of desired elements which might be considered according to the need, capacity and tradition of a congregation.

Ideally, all might eat of literally one bread, as Paul says. A single loaf ("loaf" can be interpreted broadly), from which all can share, represents the ideal most adequately. This could have drawbacks if, say, large crusty pasta dura-style bread were consecrated in one piece and most of it were left over. Percy assumes a sufficiently traditional piety (and respect for the rubrics) to allow reverent consumption of the whole. But not all loaves are as large or as crumbly as others. Many smaller congregations could, for that matter, use the large forms of traditional wafer bread now readily available, or pita-style bread that can readily be broken, shared, and cleaned up without much waste.

Second, whether or not all can realistically share from the one loaf, all could receive broken bread. Use of just a few loaves (including large wafers) does not diminish the symbol too greatly. At least here there is an sign that the body of Christ is something shared.

Last, Percy's intention is not to disparage those who will, for some mixture of practical reasons, maintain the use of individual wafers for the congregation. Perhaps those who maintain this position should be particularly careful to ask whether they otherwise embody the apostle's point. If we really are the body of Christ, we had all better be doing something about it.

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