Q: At Mass, why does the priest break the consecrated host, and why is it done so subtly? Surely there’s a meaning there, but if so, why is the congregation not engaged when it is broken?
A: You are correct that there’s a meaning there. The breaking of the consecrated host is arguably one of the most important parts of the Mass. It is from this action that early Christians developed the first name for the eucharistic prayer of the church. Centuries before we referred to the eucharistic liturgy as “The Mass,” we called it the “Breaking of the Bread.” (see Luke 24:30, 24:35; Acts 2:42, 2:46, 20:7, 27:35; 1 Corinthians 10:16)
The ritual of the “breaking of the bread”, that is breaking of the consecrated host before communion, receives its significance primarily from Jesus’ action at the Last Supper during Passover where he took, blessed, broke and gave the bread to the disciples while identifying that gift as his very body. (see Mark 14:22, Matthew 26:26, Luke 22:19) The Lord Jesus further stressed the reality of his flesh and blood as true food and true drink in the “Bread of Life discourse” in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. (see John 6:51-57)
When Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper, he was enacting a powerful prophetic sign — he was declaring that his very body would be broken and his very blood would be poured out. He was also stating that those who share in this sacred meal are participants in his very passion and paschal mystery.
By breaking the bread, Jesus rendered present his crucifixion on Calvary in the very meal they were sharing. For that reason, St. Paul taught the early Christians of Corinth that their sharing in the Eucharist is actually a proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes again. (see 1 Corinthians 11:26) Today we affirm this same truth when we proclaim the Mystery of Faith after the consecration in the Eucharistic Prayer as we say, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again.” For this reason, we have traditionally referred to the Mass as the “un-bloody sacrifice of Calvary” in which we participate in and receive the grace of our Lord’s death and resurrection. The ritual of the breaking of the bread also reveals the presence of the Risen Lord. The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized the Risen Jesus in this action when Christ stayed with them. The Risen Lord took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, and it was in this action that Christ’s presence was revealed to them. (see Luke 24:29-35)
The congregation participates in this sacred action of breaking bread by proclaiming the title of Jesus as “Lamb of God.” This is the title John the Baptist used when he pointed out the Lord in John 1:29: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” This title is one of the most profound statements of Jesus’ identity and mission in the fourth Gospel. It is on the cross of Calvary that Jesus becomes the true Lamb of God and accomplishes the world’s salvation through the forgiveness of sins and the establishment of the new covenant in his blood. Indeed, that is why John goes out of his way to include multiple references to Jesus as the Passover lamb in connection with our Lord’s crucifixion (see John 19:14, 31 — Jesus dies on the “Day of Preparation” as the Passover lambs are being slain in the Temple; John 19:29 — a hyssop branch is associated with Jesus as it was associated with the blood of the Passover lamb in Exodus 12:22; and in John 19:36, they are instructed to break none of his bones, a reference to the Passover lamb in Exodus 12:46).
The title “Lamb of God” captures Jesus’ deepest identity and mission in John’s Gospel. The congregation proclaims this great title three times as the body of Christ (in the consecrated host) is being broken on the altar. Indeed, Jesus is our Lamb of God — the perfect and acceptable sacrifice who takes away our sins and brings ultimate peace for everyone who believes in him. This great proclamation of the congregation should be a moment of profound reverence as we call upon the Lord’s mercy and acknowledge the Lord’s power to take away the sins of the world. In the “Breaking of the Bread,” we actually become participants in the Lord’s death and resurrection, his paschal mystery.
The Book of Revelation continues to teach us about the victory Jesus accomplishes for us in his death and resurrection. The author refers to Jesus as the “Lamb once slain.” (Revelation 5:6, 12) The Mass is sometimes described as the “Wedding Feast of the Lamb of God” for this reason. (see Revelation 19:9)
In the Mass we celebrate and receive our Lord’s definitive victory over the forces of sin and death. This is the triumph of the Lamb of God. For this reason, many medieval architects of the ninth century began to include a prominent “triumphal arch” immediately over the altar to honor the victory of Jesus as the Lamb of God who offers himself for us in the sacrament of the altar. Examples of this architectural feature can still be found in traditional churches throughout the world.
As you pray with the church this year during Holy Week, pay attention to the breaking of the bread and profess your faith in Jesus as the great Lamb of God who offers the grace of his death and resurrection to each of us in his body and blood. Thank the Lord for what he has done for us. As you receive his real presence (body, blood, soul and divinity) at Communion, pray that you may become that which you receive so that it is Christ who lives in us and no longer we who live for ourselves. (see Galatians 2:20)
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - April 2019
Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to email@example.com.