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Know Him in the Breaking of Bread | Fr. Francis Randolph | From Know Him in the Breaking of Bread: A Guide To The Mass

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The First Mass

In the evening of the first day of the week, two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. And one came up beside them and began to explain the Scriptures that told of Jesus the Christ, how he was destined to suffer and rise again. And as he spoke, the hearts of the disciples burned within them; they were stirred and enlightened by the new explanation of scriptural words they had heard so many times before. But it was not until they sat together, and he took bread and broke it, that they recognized that the person actually present with them was the same Jesus about whom they had been speaking (Lk 24:13-35).

From that day till this, Christians have met to hear the Scriptures explained and to know Jesus in the breaking of bread. These three elements are the essence of the Mass: Christians come together and discern the spirit of Jesus in each other. They listen to the Word of God, and their hearts burn within them as they hear it. And in the breaking of bread they recognize Jesus himself actually present, given for them.

The coming together is vital; it is only in the Church that the Mass can take place. This does not mean necessarily in a special church building, though that helps. Nor does it mean that many people are necessarily gathered on any particular occasion, though that is desirable. It means that the Mass is celebrated within the unity of the One Church, that the celebration is not a private, exclusive affair but is in conscious union with the Church throughout the world. One of the most moving descriptions of the Mass I have read is by the American Jesuit Walter Ciszek, who was a prisoner in the old Soviet Union. He managed to slip away into the forest with only one companion and celebrated Mass quietly and secretly, using a tree stump as an altar. And in so doing he was far from alone; he was one with millions of Catholics all over the world. The whole Church came into the heart of that forest; Christ was made present among a people who were unaware of his existence. That lonely Mass was very much the expression of Christians coming together, uniting in the one sacrifice. [1]

Listening to the Word of God is vital; unless we have heard about Jesus, how can we love him? There may be only a brief, whispered passage from the Gospel, or there may be a long, drawn-out sequence of readings, but in one way or other the message of Scripture must be proclaimed. The Church first expressed her faith in the words of the Bible, and the long centuries of developing tradition have deepened and enhanced those words. We do not hear them alone but within the Church that gave birth to them, and even now, even after they have been spoken so many, many times, they are still capable of awakening our hearts to burn within us.

The breaking of bread is the apex of the Mass. In the Consecration of bread and wine and the sharing of that Blessed Sacrament among the faithful, we know Jesus himself, directly, without intermediary. Still it is within the Church alone that we find him, for the Church herself is actually constituted by the sharing of Holy Communion. It is in receiving the Body of Jesus Christ that we become his Body, the Universal Church. That is why St. Paul warns of the risks at stake if we try to partake of that Body without recognizing the Body, if we imagine that we can receive Communion without desiring to be part of that Body which is the Church (1 Cor 11:29). Jesus Christ is not a tame lion; we approach him at our peril if we defy him; but if we come in love, open to his Word, recognizing his Body, then we shall be loved and welcomed indeed. We cannot impose conditions on him; we come to him to learn, to listen, to follow his guidance. And his message is always the same, the message of his love for us, his love for all our fellow creatures.

The Discipline of Secrecy

For some centuries after Pentecost, the Church remained very silent about the Mass. It was above all the "secret", the "mystery", the one thing known to initiated Christians that was on no account to be divulged to those outside the Church. Those prepar- ing for baptism knew that some great secret was to come, but it was not revealed to them until after they had been baptized. The union between God and his people was too personal, too intimate to display in public to a cynical and unsympathetic world. As a result, our knowledge about early Christian worship has to be gleaned from hints and allusions, tantalizing comments like "the initiated will know what I am talking about", and ambiguous references that even now can puzzle the commentator. Paintings and graffiti in the catacombs help to fill out the picture, but it remains true that we do not really know what Liturgy in "the early Church" was like.

St. Justin Martyr

This makes it rather a surprise to find one author who tears the veil of secrecy. The martyr St. Justin, in about A.D. 150, wrote a book called the Apologia, which is a simple explanation of what Christians believe and what they do, intended to persuade the emperor and other hostile powers to let Christians live in peace. In the course of this Apology, he describes the Mass and explains briefly what it means. It had not yet come to its modern form, of course, but the basic elements are recognizable. The faithful meet on Sunday, and the "memoirs of the apostles" or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time permits. Then the priest explains the readings and exhorts the people. They rise then and pray in common for themselves and for all men everywhere, so that they may be recognized to be good, loyal citizens. At the end of the prayers, they salute each other with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of water mixed with wine are brought to the priest; he offers them, giving thanks. All present give their assent in the word "Amen". Then the deacons distribute the Eucharist and carry it away to those who are absent. The congregation does not disperse before a collection has been taken.

As well as describing the actions of the Mass, St. Justin gives away the central secret of what it means: "We do not receive these things as if it were common bread and common drink, but just as Jesus Christ our Savior was made flesh through the Word of God, possessing flesh and blood to rescue us, in the same way the nourishment over which thanks have been given through the prayer of the Word who was with God, and which feeds our own body and blood as it is transformed, we have been taught to identify as the body and blood of that same Jesus who was made flesh." For this reason, he goes on to say, only those who are full members of the Church may receive the Eucharist. My own copy of Justin formerly belonged to a Protestant college, and someone has written in a neat eighteenth-century hand "Is not this a little like transubstantiation?" It is indeed: St. Justin in the second century is saying, in a slightly convoluted and undeveloped way, exactly what the Catholic Church has been teaching ever since. The basic structure of Justin's Mass is still recognizable: the coming together as members of one Church, the reading and explanation of Scripture, the prayer of the faithful, the sign of peace, and the offering and breaking of bread, which the faithful receive as the Body of Christ. The collection also is a familiar element! [2]

After the conversion of the Empire, there was no further need for secrecy in a world where everyone knew what the Christian faith was about. But now arose the opposite problem: since everyone knew the truth, there was no reason to write it down! As a result, systematic writings about the Mass are not found until it first came to be doubted, many centuries later. It is the great medieval theologians, particularly St. Thomas, who first explored the meaning of the Mass in depth, not because the ideas were new in their time, but because it was only in their time that anyone had begun to question them.

Now that we again live in a pagan society that is hostile to the Church, like that of the ancient Roman Empire, it might seem a good idea to practice the discipline of secrecy again, but since the secret has been so widely published for so long it would be absurd to try to conceal it. All the same I often feel uneasy about the way in which the Mass is televised, filming the actual Consecration and the moment of Communion, as if the cameras were intruding on something too intimate for the public gaze. I am hoping at least that readers of this book will be sympathetic, will be trying to come to love our Lord, if they are not yet fully communicating members of his Catholic Church. In explaining what we mean when we talk of the presence of Jesus Christ, of transubstantiation, of the mystical union of Holy Communion, I am aware that I am treading on very delicate ground. I hope and trust that I am keeping firmly within the mainline tradition of the Church, to whose judgment everything I say is submitted.


[1] Walter Ciszek, He Leadeth Me (San Francisco: Ignatius Press; 1995), 37.

[2] Justin, Apologia Prima, 97-98; most accessible in Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963), section VII, iv.

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Fr. Francis Randolph studied Classics and Theology in Oxford and Rome. He has traveled widely, and worked as a parish priest, hospital and military chaplain, and six years as a university chaplain. He currently works in a busy parish in central England. He is also the author of Pardon and Peace: A Sinner's Guide to Confession.

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