Breaking Bread

It was not customary in the countries of the ancient Middle East described in the Bible to cut bread; rather, they would break it and divide it, as it was often baked in the form of a flat loaf which could be easily divided by hands. The breaking of bread was also performed during the Passover meal, and since the Lord established the Sacrament of the Eucharist during the Passover Seder (dinner), the breaking of the prosphora was incorporated into the Liturgy of the Church as a special sacred act. It was already in the New Testament that the breaking of bread was given special attention. For instance, Luke and Cleopas recognized the Risen Jesus no earlier than during the breaking of bread (see Luke 24:30-31). The very structure of the Liturgy of the Faithful was constituted by the following four parts: I. The bringing of Bread and Wine (Offering), II. Giving thanks to God for the Bread and Wine (blessing), III. Breaking of the Gifts (Division), IV. Partaking of the Gifts (Communion). This article will show how the liturgical breaking of bread is done in various Christian worship traditions.

Western Rites

Roman Rite. The breaking of the host (Latin for prosphora) in the post-Vatican II mass is performed immediately after the Pax. The priest breaks the unleavened bread, then breaks off one half and puts it into the bowl, saying in a quiet voice, “The Body and Blood of Christ, united in this bowl, may it be the food of eternal life for us”. At this time the choir sings the ancient Latin hymn Agnus Dei (The Lamb of God) which paraphrases the famous exclamation of St. John the Baptist in John 1:29 (Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world) and affirms the identity between the sanctified Bread and Jesus. This hymn was introduced into the Roman mass by Pope Sergius I (†701), a Syrian by birth, as a response to the decision of the Quinisext Council (†691) prohibiting the depiction of Jesus as the Lamb. The breaking of bread in the Roman Rite represents the Crucifixion, losing its original meaning of crushing the Gifts to distribute them among believers. At present, the broken host is eaten up either by just the priest or by the priest and two or three laymen, while the rest of the congregation takes communion with the host consecrated during another mass, which violates the principle of communion of the whole congregation with one bread.

Mozarabic Rite. This Rite was once widespread in Spain. It now exists in the Spanish city of Toledo. The breaking of bread in this Rite is performed during the singing of the Creed, which is inserted after the Anaphora. When breaking the Eucharistic Bread into nine parts, the priest places it on the diskos in the shape of a cross, and each part has its own name in memory of an event in the life of the Lord: Incarnation, Nativity, Baptism, Resurrection, etc. After singing the Lord’s Prayer, the presbyter takes one of the particles called The Kingdom, lifts it above the chalice and pronounces three times, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed” (see Rev. 5:5), to which the choir answers three times, “He who sits on the Cherubim, the branch from the root of David. Hallelujah.”

Eastern Rites

East Syriac Rite. This Rite emerged in the first centuries of Christianity outside the Roman world and evolved in Parthia and Iran. This Rite was used by the Church of Persia, later known as the Assyrian Church of the East. The liturgical breaking of the prosphora in this tradition has its unique features. After saying the Anaphora, the priest kisses the Offering crosswise without touching it with his lips. Then he prayerfully breaks the Bread into two pieces, puts one piece on the diskos, and makes the sign of the cross with the other piece saying, “The precious Blood is marked with the holy Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.” The Bread is then immersed in the Chalice, after which it is used to make the sign of the cross over the piece that lies on the diskos, “The Holy Body is marked with the redeeming Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit forever and ever.” The two pieces are joined together on the diskos with a special prayer, and the presbyter makes a special cruciform incision with his fingernail on the blood-sprinkled Sacrifice so that the Blood may penetrate deeper.

Byzantine Rite. The Orthodox Church currently uses the Byzantine Rite, a creative synthesis of the traditions of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Asia Minor. According to this Rite, after the singing of Our Father and the exaltation of the Lamb, the deacon addresses the priest with the words “Apportion, Master, the Holy Bread”, to which the priest says the prayer “The Lamb of God is apportioned and distributed; apportioned, but not divided; ever eaten, yet never consumed; but sanctifying those who partake” and breaks the Bread into four parts along the cross-shaped cuts already made during the proskomedia. The four parts rest on the edges of the Diskos in the shape of a cross, then the part with the inscription IC (Jesus) crosses the Chalice, and then is put into the Chalice with the words “The fullness of the Holy Spirit”. The XC particle is given to the clergy, while the NI and KA (victory) parts are broken up with a special liturgical knife and are used for the communion of the faithful.

There are many other rites that make up the treasury of the ancient liturgical tradition of the Church of Christ. The purpose of this article was to show how creatively the ancient Christians approached one of the most important aspects of the Eucharist – the breaking of bread, the sacramental action of the broken body of Christ for our salvation. Knowledge of various liturgical rites allows us to learn more about our own tradition, as  well as to understand the logic of the development of Christian worship and the ideas it was inspired by.

John Nichiporuk

About the author

John Nichiporuk,
a Master of Theology, specialized in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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