The Revd Antonio Garcia Fuente
Simone de Beauvoir, the famous French feminist and existentialist philosopher and her partner, the fellow existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, used to meet regularly with Raymond Aron and other philosophers in a trendy Parisian bar of the early 1930s, the Bec de Gaz. It was there, according to her autobiography, when, after a few cocktails, some of the key ideas of existentialism would came into being. These thinkers thought that philosophy had become too theoretical and they wanted philosophy to return to true, deep human experiences. Allegedly, one day Sartre himself took an apricot cocktail (his favourite) and raising it in his hand said: “You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!”
So it is hardly surprising to discover in the Gospel today that the early Christian community delved into Christ’s identity through a similar basic human experience: the communal breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup. And in discovering Christ’s risen unique identity, their own identity was also brought to light.
The breaking of the bread and sharing of one cup was to become so important to the early Church, it had so much meaning for them, that it was and still is today one of the crucial parts of the Eucharist. It's a single sign made of three actions: bread broken, given, shared.
The priest’s wafer is usually bigger, or here at St John’s we use larger wafers, so that this sign can be made clearly: the bread which is broken, given, shared. The words that precede the breaking of the bread are a memorial of what Jesus did, but the breaking of the bread is a true sign, and action, practical (so that the bread can be shared) but which also reveals the true meaning of our Christian identity. So what does it mean?
Bread broken, given, shared. For early Christians the first meaning had to do with the making of the bread and wine as a sign of the things that we must let go of in our lives. They said the bread and wine of the Eucharist come from the seeds and grapes scattered in the fields, that are collected and need to be ground or pressed to produce or give their fruit. Jesus often used the image of the seed that needs to die or be broken to produce its fruit. “To die”, for us in 21st century language, is “to let go.”
Prince Harry has been lately in the media, talking about the loss of his mother and how difficult it was for him to talk about it at the time. He is raising awareness for a mental health charity that works with young people in extreme stress situations. Learning to let go is one of the decisive steps for mental health therapists. How do we choose what to let go of? What has a positive effect on us to let go of? And though Christians share with the mental health sciences the positive effects of letting go, here is where Christianity has its own principle: we let go of those things that don’t build the Kingdom of God. Note please that there is no moral judgement in this principle: we don’t judge how good or bad is the thing we are letting go of, but only ask if it helps in any way to build the Kingdom of God or not. And this, in my opinion, is already an advantage compared to the mental health sciences because it doesn’t require an exhaustive analysis, just to put Jesus before our eyes in a simple way.
Bread broken, given, shared. Bread is the most basic food. Food and drink are a basic physiological need, but they are also the basic sign of hospitality. We share something to eat and drink in happy and in sad moments of our lives: dinner parties, weddings… but also funerals. And this is the second meaning of the broken bread: the shared bread should be a sign of our shared joys and sadness together as a community. It reminds us that we are here for each other, to support each other through the difficulties and to share the joy of our happiness. One of my favourite pastoral activities, and I guess probably of my colleagues as well, is to take communion, this same bread, to the sick and homebound. They receive it as a sign of this sharing in their pains and sufferings, a sign that even if they are not present here today, the whole community is praying for them and with them.
Bread broken, given, shared. The oneness of the bread, even once broken, the same wine from the one flagon, is a sign of that oneness of the members of the community, partakers with each other. This oneness of all of us, is shown in three ways: radical equality, radical inclusion, radical reconciliation. This is not just a symbol, it can’t be just a symbol, it must be a reality. Everybody, regardless of their background, comes around the same table to eat the same bread and drink the same cup. And our commitment coming together to receive it, is that we will work actively to make this oneness a practical reality and not a symbol: work for radical equality, radical inclusion and radical reconciliation at all its levels.
Bread broken, given, shared. The Celtic Church also spoke of broken bread as “convivium.” This Latin word could be translated as ‘co-existence’ but the Christian Celts understood “convivium”, not as ‘living together’ or ‘living alongside’ one another, but as living in unison, existing for one another. It is a much deeper understanding of our lives, not as a net of individuals that come together, but as a real single heart where the individual doesn’t dissolve in the plenty, but where the oneness is equally and deeply true.
These meanings of the broken bread are all different ways in which we can discover the risen Christ. There are so many different meanings to the breaking of the bread that it would be impossible for me even to try and bring them all in front of you now, just as there are so many different ways in which we can encounter and discover the risen Christ.
May we all discover the risen Christ and our own self when he comes to walk alongside us in the breaking of the bread.