Origins and influences V: The Breaking of Bread

In an earlier blog I noted that although we can have an idea that there is a direct and straight line from the Last Supper to our Mass of today that is not so. Jesus did not distribute a missal to each of the apostles and say ‘do this in memory of me’.

What were they to do, in memory of him? Everything he had done at the meal?

There is no indication that they ever did that. Whatever the Passover element of the meal was – and we do not know what it was, with any certainty – never seems to have been repeated. If it was a Passover meal, remember in John’s Gospel the meal is before the Passover. But there is no indication that there was a regular gathering for the mutual washing of feet either.

What we do know about that line of connection in the earliest days of the Church, between the Last Supper, the Lord’s Supper – and for sure there is a line of connection – we glean from scripture.

The first thing that we see is that the Breaking of Bread becomes a significant ritual for the early followers of Jesus.

The Breaking of Bread

That term, the Breaking of Bread, is used especially in the writings of Luke. It comes first in the climax of the Emmaus story which takes up almost the whole of the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel and in which Jesus helps his disciples slowly put together the things they will need to understand what has happened in the Easter Mystery, the Paschal Mystery, of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. First he engages them in a reconsideration of scripture, helping them to begin see that his death rather than being a betrayal of hope is in fact hope’s fulfilment. And second he takes, blesses and breaks bread with them: and it is at the breaking of the bread that they recognise him.

That language of the breaking of the bread continues to be used by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Fellowship of the Believers
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 2.42-47

Eutychus Raised from the Dead
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third storey and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.

Acts 20.7-12

Breaking bread in a storm
As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. (We were in all 276 persons in the ship.) And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.

Acts 27.33-38

Trying to understand and account for what is being described in scripture is not always straightforward!

Very many would, without hesitation, see the reference in Acts 2 to the breaking of bread as a reference to the first believers celebrating Eucharist (in one form or other).

And it is regularly suggested that the gathering at which Eutychus quite literally drops off during Paul’s preaching (or at least speechifying) was a Sunday gathering for Mass.

However what about what happens in the third episode? There is quite a lot of what we take now to be eucharistic language in Luke’s account: ‘he took bread and giving thanks (in Greek ‘eucharistein)’he broke it and began to eat. With all of that language employed Luke seems to imply this is a very eucharistic moment, (even in our later sacramental understanding of the term) and surely something more is going on than Paul was simply telling everyone to have a bite to eat and pull themselves together. But was he celebrating Eucharist? Did he share it with others?

Interpreting the words of scripture, scholars will sometimes push the evidence towards more or less tentative conclusions so as to test out their theories. But for others us it is often enough to notice ‘the grey areas’, and value the resonances, the points of connection, between what is said and what we – in a very different age and in very different circumstances – say and do, without demanding to know ‘was it Mass or wasn’t it?’

The word eucharistein – giving thanks noted above in that somewhat problematic account of Paul in the boat – gives us our English word ‘Eucharist’. The noun is used c 150AD by Justin Martyr in his Frist Apology – of which more in some weeks time.

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do youe in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. …

Justin, First Apology 66.1

By the time of Justin Eucharist has taken on a technical meaning (and the Eucharistic Rite, as we will see has taken on what is to us a very recognisable form). But in the New Testament, and in the First and early Second Century, at least, there is also a good deal of fluidity. The Eucharistic controversies, and the centralisation of Church authority, that it has helped (and sometimes hindered?) our appreciation of the Eucharist – and certainly brought a forensic clarity to what is considered valid and invalid, licit and illicit – lie far in the future.

There is evidence of -at least – ritual diversity in the Eucharistic practice of the early Church – some may have had rituals using bread only; others with bread and water; others with bread and water and wine. We have no need to judge the propriety of what they did. It is enough to note what they did, these people who sought to live in communion with the risen Christ and understood themselves to eat and (generally, also) drink their communion in his Body, of his flesh.

What did matter in these formative times was that whether or not the breaking of bread, for example, was done in communion with Jesus, in memory of him, and under the uniting power of the Holy Spirit. The niceties of ritual practice seem to have been of less importance, at least for a while.

While there clearly was variety, the dominant tradition which has been handed on to us, is that first expounded in Paul. But for Paul too – though he knows Eucharist as a ritual  that involves bread and wine and which echoes what Jesus did at the last supper – Eucharist is also more than the ritual. It is thanksgiving, and it is about a life of thanksgiving, a life lived in Communion with Christ, and with his Body the Church.

So Paul eucharistises – he give thanks (and uses the language of eucharistein) – for the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 1.4); he partakes with thanksgiving (again he uses eucharistein) over most any food set before him (unless he knows it has been offered in sacrifice to false gods (1 Cor 30); and he urges those he writes to eucharistise always and everywhere (cf Eph 1.16, 1 Th 5.18 and 2 Th2.13), as well as at the meal that is specifically memorial of Christ.

If we allow ourselves to loosen up a little with regard to what Eucharist has been for others, we have the opportunity to broaden our appreciation of what it is that we are part of when we celebrate Eucharist today. For all of the wonder of how Eucharist engages us in what happened in the Upper Room at the Lord’s Supper, and what Christ suffered and achieved at Calvary, there is more too.

Next week we look at some of that more – in the Gospel accounts of other meals that Jesus shared with his disciples, and in some of the earliest non-scriptural accounts of Eucharistic prayer.

Acknowledgements

  • Translation of Scripture: English Standard Version (c) 2001-9, Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
  • Quotation from Justin Martyr taken from https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/justin_eucharist.htm 
  • Photographs. (c) 2005, Allen Morris, First Station, Clifton Cathedral. (c) 2017, Allen Morris, Eutychus, Chester Cathedral; (c) 2018, Allen Morris. Glass fragments, Coventry Cathedral. Stained glass, Hull Minster; (c) 2014, St Paul, St Trophime, Arles, France.
  • Text (c) 2021, Allen Morris.

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