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Ancient Christian Worship: The Breaking of Bread and Communion

The Breaking of Bread (“He broke”)

Christian tradition knows three types of “fraction” or breaking of bread. An “imitative” fraction follows along with the Institution Narrative and occurs at the words “he broke.” A “utilitarian” fraction is accomplished with little fanfare as a functional necessity for distributing the bread to the congregation. Finally, a “mystical” fraction is an elaborate procedure of breaking the bread, arranging the pieces, signing them, etc., with each action vested with deep symbolism.

The earliest sources all seem to suggest a “utilitarian” fraction. Indeed, some sources (such as Justin Martyr) pass over the breaking of bread altogether. Other texts proceed as if the fraction had been accomplished, but give no details as to how it was done. Originally, the deacons and not the presiding minister were responsible for breaking the bread. A song or chant may have accompanied the fraction. The breaking of bread held a somewhat greater symbolic significance in the East, where nearly all later liturgies developed a “mystical” fraction.

Eventually, the Lord’s Prayer came to be recited in connection with the breaking of bread as a spiritual preparation for communion. Like the Lavabo, this was most likely a fourth-century Jerusalem innovation. It did not come into the Western church until nearly AD 400, and apparently not to Rome until two centuries after that.

The custom of the “elevation of the host” to be adored by the worshipers is an even later invention. It is likely, however, that the bishop offered the bread and the cup to the worshipers with some kind of stock liturgical formula, or pronounced some sort of blessing upon them before communion. The customary invitation, “Holy things to holy people,” to which the worshipers would reply “(There is) One holy, our Lord Jesus Christ,” is another innovation of the fourth century Jerusalem church. Several forms of invitation and/or blessing are known in early sources such as the Acts of Thomas (see below).

Communion (“He gave”)

And there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (Justin, First Apology 67)

The people approached the table to receive communion. Generally, the president would serve the bread and the deacon the cup. It is possible that at least in some communities communion was by “intinction,” i.e., dipping the bread into the cup and consuming both together.

The Acts of John (ca. 180) describes the partaking as follows:

And he [John] broke the bread and gave it to us, praying over each of the brethren that he would be worthy of the Lord’s grace and of the most holy Eucharist. And he partook of it himself and said, “May there be for me also a part with you,” and “Peace be with you, my beloved” (AcJohn 110).

The ancient liturgies provide words of administration to speak over the communicants. Presumably, the presiding minister(s) would originally have enjoyed a certain leeway in these simple blessings. The Acts of Thomas records several possible variations:

And breaking the bread of the Eucharist he gave it to them, saying: “This Eucharist shall be to you for compassion and mercy, and not for judgment and requital.” And they said: “Amen.” (AcThom 29)

And when he had said this, he marked the cross upon the bread and broke it, and began to distribute it. And first he gave to the woman, saying: “Let this be to you for forgiveness of sins and eternal transgressions!” (AcThom 50)

And breaking the bread of the Eucharist he gave to Vazan and Tertia and Mnesara and Siphor’s wife and daughter, and said: “Let this Eucharist be to you for salvation and joy and health for your souls!” and they said: “Amen.” And a voice was heard saying: “Amen. Fear not, but only believe.” (AcThom 133)

All of these forms constitute a prayer for the fruits of communion: that believers might receive God’s compassion, forgiveness, salvation, and other blessings. In the Acts of Andrew is a more general invitation to receive the consecrated gifts: “Receive the grace which Christ the Lord our God gives you by me, his servant” (AcAnd 20).

Another form of words of administration is found in the Apostolic Tradition at a baptismal Eucharist. Upon serving the bread, the deacon says, “The Bread of Heaven in Jesus Christ.” The baptismal Eucharist involved three cups: of water, of milk and honey, and of wine, with a threefold formula spoken by the three servers: “In God the Father Almighty, and in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church.” Dix suggests that this threefold formula was also used on other occasions for the Eucharistic chalice alone (The Shape of the Liturgy, 37).

The Apostolic Constitutions reveals a concern that communion be received with proper decorum:

… and when the oblation has been made, let every rank by itself partake of the Lord’s body and precious blood in order, and approach with reverence and holy fear, as to the body of their king. Let the women approach with their heads covered, as is becoming the order of women; but let the door be watched, lest any unbeliever, or one not yet initiated, come in. (ApConst 2:7).

Furthermore, both Tertullian and Hippolytus display a concern that none of the Eucharistic bread or wine be spilled.

Dismissal

After Communion, the cleansing of the Eucharistic vessels took place in a public ceremony. Just as the setting of the table marked the beginning of the rite, the clearing of the table marked its end.

In church history the Eucharistic liturgy has known a huge variety of endings, which eventually became quite elaborate. These endings have included prayers of thanksgiving after Communion, hymns, and farewell benedictions. The earliest custom, however, was to simply dismiss the congregation as soon as the communion was finished. According to Dix, “a single sentence of dismissal, probably said by the deacon, appears to have been the only thing that followed communion in the pre-Nicene church” (Ibid., 81).

Next: Concluding Observations

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