“He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Luke 24:35
“Therefore, let us keep the feast, not with the old bread of malice, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
I Corinthians 5:8
To break bread is not to eat. Breaking bread is to share. (If I get carried away with some details below, just remember that.)
As we continue to await the data-driven moment when we will be able to gather again, face to face, as a congregation, we communicate and commune with one another in a new virtual way.
Virtual is such a fascinating word. It is related to both virtue and value, how “strong” and “close” a thing is to another thing that we think we know well. At the very least it is a relative claim that a thing has value. At its strongest meaning for us as Christians, it signals an experience of being present to God and to one another, usually in prayer, in “spiritual communion.”
Spiritual Communion also specifically means: the act of participating in the Holy Eucharist without taking the bread and/or the wine that the priest handles and offers. Spiritual Communion means that the physical nature of the sacrament is received at a distance, in a spiritual way, because it is not offered or cannot be shared.
In the earliest testimony to how the Christian community was gathered around the Eucharist, Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread, and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” We can imagine that in the early church, they made this witness in very many different ways.
We don’t know the ingredients and the shape of that first bread that Jesus took. Many are surprised when they read that most scholars do not think that Jesus’ last supper with the disciples was a Passover meal, or at least, it was not like any Passover meal we are familiar with today. Bottom line, we get no description of how that was taken, blessed and broken, nor are our first witnesses all that interested in the details.
Until recently I never thought that the most interesting word in the verse is the littlest. Everything depends upon what is signified by that one little word “this.”
What bread is “this bread?”
It is of course, on the most basic level, the bread of remembrance, signified by these words: “On the night before he died for us, he took bread.” Every Sunday as I prepare myself for the sacrament, I like to think of the bread that Jesus touched and the cup of wine he held, in the company of his friends. Whenever we take “this bread” we place ourselves immediately in that room. As that time and place becomes present to us again, we hope to see, bless, break and share that same presence.
For Jesus and the rabbis of that day, bread referred to all the ways God had sustained his people throughout his covenant with them, as manna in the wilderness, and as the lamb prepared in haste for their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. As we focus on Jesus touching bread and being just there, we enter into his presence, or rather, he steps forward to us.
We also should think of everything we are bringing to the table. We bring the issues, the needs, the longings, the stuff of our lives and set it on the altar. We invite him to draw close. And we can see Jesus take it and hold it up in his hands. And like that the bread that Jesus shared at a house in Emmaus. Indeed, “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
The other day I found myself talking with a client of our soup kitchen about all the cooking shows he was watching. We wondered aloud if the audiences at those shows get to taste the food. Maybe because they come for the celebrity, they don’t care. But we who understand the importance of Holy Communion certainly do care. Jesus’ words ring in my ears: “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you.”
And then I got to thinking about the various people and communities that do not share in our communion meals. Even when we have been present when the bread is blessed and broken, sometimes we have not been invited, or choose not, to participate. Now, more than ever, as we are separated from one another, we know we need it.
It is a good thing that Spiritual Communion is the communion of desire. The more we long for it, the more we yearn for it, the greater are the blessings it contains, being virtually what we need. The more we realize we need it, the more the blessing is there for us. Just one things, though. We cannot share it.
Or is that the final word. Jesus came to two disciples on the road. They thought all was lost. But because of their hospitality and their teachable imaginations, “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Because they were open to spiritual communion, Jesus showed up.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. I hope we are all being taught anew to see the Eucharist in larger terms, and intuitively understand it as a celebration of God’s undying provision for us, always. Even when we can’t share it, for whatever reason, we immediately make a move to do the next closest, virtual thing.
This desire for God should be directly connected to seeing that our neighbor has enough food. We are blessed to be able to support with donations, and in some cases, volunteer at one of our church’s food ministries. We see God’s provision through the Cecil and Grace Bean Soup Kitchen or Comida Para La Comunidad. We can support the work of Mother’s Mission in Chester, Kensington, and even Guatemala, or on the long list of food pantries on the Diocesan website. Especially in our isolation, we see that this is what is most needed now.
As we move forward, need to imagine more ways to share God’s love. We need to prepare for when we will be together again. We cannot forget that we have things to offer each other, even now.
As a sign that you are turning you attention to really breaking bread, really sharing, I invite you to bring some gift with you our services.
Perhaps it will be that application for a job, or a loan, or other support. Or a phone number of someone you need to call, a credit card you can use to donate to your local food bank, a candle that will be lit morning noon and evening as you remember to pray. Or the name of a lonely one in need of the knowledge of God’s presence. Or our car keys that we want to remind us to only go out for essentials, to be ready to help wisely any one of our neighbors who may need us. Perhaps it will be the sweet bread and coffee that you will drink after the service in our Zoom Coffee hour.
And when the priest takes up the bread at church, when the presider says “take this” and calls to mind that the Holy Spirit fills it through and through, what you have brought will be joined to it. And you will receive the knowledge of your spiritual communion. Together we will proclaim that Christ is really present in and amongst us in the sacrament of his Body and Blood.
From the priests hand to what you long for in your open empty hands. This is his Body. “Take THIS in remembrance that Christ died for you. Feed on him in your heart, by faith, with thanksgiving.”
Let’s meditate on “this.” Let it contain all the actions that we can do at this difficult time that sustains our neighbor, that offers salvation, that points to what it means for us to present ourselves as an offering to God, to make our sacrifice at this time. And to prepare for the way forward together.