The Eucharistic Life part 4:
The Fraction, Holy Communion, Blessing and Going Out 14.3.18
Today I’d like to reflect on the final parts of the Eucharist, the fraction, the breaking of the bread, receiving communion and being sent into the world.
The symbolism of the fraction is important. It is appropriate that the act is seen by everyone and that it is heard. Here the flow of the liturgy towards God is broken. The wafer will never be the same again. It is messy. First the hands of the priest disturb it, then our teeth and our guts break it down. The building up of the liturgy is replaced by breaking down, by fraction. Sacred order becomes human disorder.
Here we may see the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Until that event it seemed that this person of teaching and healing would go straight to heaven. But Christianity has scandalous brokenness, disorder, and violence at its very heart: immediately after the last supper we go straight to the breaking agony, the pain, the cross and the death. Darkness, silence, and failure are words that may describe our mysterious God at this moment.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was once challenged on the Today programme about the basis of his faith: he was told that it was absurd to believe in a God who allowed such atrocities as starvation in Africa. The quiet reply was in the form of a question: ‘don’t you think we as fellow human beings have some responsibility for this too?’. Human life is literally bloody. No dogmas or faith systems can say otherwise. We have no final answers to Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or terrorism. Attempts to answer these challenges, by invoking God, are either simplistic, trite, absurd or irrelevant.
The cross is central to us. Jesus did not leap from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day. In the same way we do not jump from the prayer of consecration to communion and new life. If the bread were not to be broken then we would not be offering a true or honest expression of the world we inhabit. The acts of breaking the bread and pouring of wine underline the state of our world’s brokenness and bloodiness, and the persecution of so many Christians.
And so we can bring all of this to mind as the bread is broken. Many priests put the broken halves of a wafer together as they say that we are to share the body of Christ of which we are a part. Symbols and meanings are layered here, and we may have different glimpses on different days. That is good, for, as with much of the Eucharist, we cannot grasp the whole sense of breaking and eating at once. When the bread is broken the arms of the priest are opened to indicate that we are here to share the one bread and food of life, which like all food is not only material and secular, but also holy and sacred.
Here we may remember the scandal that we have yet to find ways of sharing the bread of the world, the bread of life, with millions who remain hungry. The resources are there, but the political will to give bread to all still eludes us, and so the spiritual and material fraction remains.
And then we are invited with rather sombre and yet familiar words to receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus we arrive on the shore between this world and the next. We move from our seats to receive Christ, for we are the body of Christ here and now. We affirm our participation in Him with a deeply felt “Amen”. Like Mary Magdalene, we say: yes, it is you, Lord, here in our midst and in our life. And our yes is to everyone past and present who joins with us in this banquet, in anticipation of the kingdom. It is the new start of striving to put right what separates us from the kingdom. It is indeed a sign, an instrument, a foretaste of the kingdom. It may show how far we are from that kingdom, but it should never be a matter of despair, but always of hope: the seeds of communion given to us will eventually bring forth the fruit of the kingdom.
Post Communion and Dismissal
Thirty years ago I was taken to a church in Warsaw, whose parish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, was murdered by the secret police because he preached anti-government sermons. His life and witness were celebrated annually in a mass in the church grounds attended by thousands of people. Astonishingly, the notice board of the church was headed “Anniversary Mass and Riot 1 May” – just a week before my visit. On the notice board was a series of large photographs showing the progress of the Mass, and then at its conclusion, one could see plain-clothes men wielding truncheons at people near the altar, and people in riot gear firing tear gas at the crowd. The final picture showed great numbers of people fleeing in terror from the churchyard. People knew that this might happen but they still came in their thousands to receive the sacrament, and to be strengthened in the very difficult circumstances of life in communist Poland. They knew that a consequence of coming to Mass might be betrayal by informers, people they would have known as colleagues, friends or even relatives. They knew too that violence might be deliberately stirred up, but their response was of peaceful resistance, guided by their faith.
Quite recently I went to Mass on a Saturday evening in the Church of St Etienne du Mont in Paris. There was a congregation of at least 400, including young families, with quite a few babies and pre-school age children. It was a full length sung Mass, with sermon. As soon as communion had been distributed, the priest sat down and there was complete silence for at least five minutes. This was a transforming time. Then the priest said the post communion prayer, followed by the notices – take the sheet home, read it and respond to it. We were given God’s blessing and then the organist played a very loud and cheerful toccata as we slowly left this most beautiful church, strengthened to go on with our lives as God’s people.
After a time of drama or adventure or violence or excitement in our lives we often wish for a return to normal. But that very rarely happens. The drama may be over but it leaves its mark. We are changed. And so life cannot be exactly the same again.
Being told to go out means much more than leaving the building and our friends. Its’ meaning is as it was for the apostles. It means going from the safety of the church and into the dangerous world, as was the case in Warsaw, and as it is in some parts of the world today. It means moving from the security of a Christian community to the insecurity of the intensely secular and highly consumerist world of today. We may choose to try and go on living in a kind of Christian bubble protecting our faith, but that prevents us from being witnesses in the world as God’s people. We could try and be witnesses still surrounded by the bubble, and talk about Jesus to other people, but this would be very counter-productive. Mission is about going from the physical and spiritual place of the church into the world without strings or labels attached. At an increasing number of confirmations and ordinations the words of the dismissal are followed by the bishop leading the newly-confirmed or ordained people into the street, into the world, to face the world. It is a powerful reminder that we are not meant to be contained within the holy place, however comfortable it is, spiritually, emotionally and physically. May all of us today and always know that we are sent out in no less than the power of the Spirit to live the Eucharistic life. Amen.