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Eucharist: The Breaking of Bread

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 2/11/10 at 11:27 AM

 

Luke puts bookends on his gospel.  There is both a prologue and an afterword to his gospel that are meant to refer us to the source and summit of our worship: Jesus Christ fully present in the Eucharist.  The front bookend is the story of the Nativity, where Luke bothers to give us a very significant detail:

And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger. (Luke 2:7)

Why does Luke pause to tell us Jesus was laid in a manger?  Not because he was anticipating the needs of millions of greeting card manufacturers centuries hence and their requirements for a picturesque Christmas scene.  No, the reason he mentions this detail is because of what a manger is:  it is feed box—a grain container.  And not just any grain container.  This particular feed box is located in “Bethlehem”, which means “House of Bread”.  In other words, Luke is reminding us that Jesus is the Bread of Life: the Eucharist and sees in these circumstance of Jesus’ birth a prophetic foreshadowing of the deepest truth about us.

Similarly, in the bookend at the end of his gospel, Luke likewise uses language that is pregnant with significance for the Eucharistic-minded ancient Christ Church.  After Jesus meet the dejected disciples on the Emmaus Road he leads them in the very first Christian Bible Study, explaining to them that the message of Moses and the Prophets is that the Son of Man had to suffer and enter into his glory. (I might note here that, as an Evangelical, I would have supposed that this would be the moment that the disciples would experience the thunderbolt epiphany and realize what was going on.)  However, the disciples remain clueless even after this divinely led walk through the Bible.  So they invite the Risen Christ to stay with them, still not realizing who he is.  He agrees, setting the scene for this moment:

When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him. (Luke 24:30-31)

It is in the Eucharistic gesture—the breaking of the bread—that the disciples finally have their eyes opened and see him for who he truly is.  Not surprisingly then, Luke (and the early Church) see the Eucharist at the heart of their worship.  That is why Luke tells us:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

One of the earliest titles given to the Eucharistic banquet is “the breaking of bread”.  It is such an unobtrusive title that many non-eucharistic Christians never notice it when they read Acts 2. “The breaking of bread and the prayers” refers not to little informal holy potlucks by believers who just like to get together to share lunch but to the liturgy of the Eucharist.  To be sure, the Church met in informal surroundings like the houses of believers (since there were no church buildings back then) but it was always liturgical.  This makes sense really, since liturgy was the only form of communal prayer known to the Jews of antiquity.  And liturgy is not a thing imposed on freedom-loving “simple Christians” by hierarchs, bureaucrats and priestcraft.  It is a thing that springs up naturally (and supernaturally) from the Jewish soil of the Church, since Judaism is itself a rich liturgical tradition.  That is why the word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.”  Worship is the work of the people and Jesus—the Bread of Life who was broken for our sake—is the object of our worship, the sacrifice we offer and the food we receive from God.