In the breaking of the bread

In the breaking of the bread

Jamie Howison’s sermon on Luke 24:13-35

In many services of Night Prayer or Compline, there is a set of responses offered to both close the liturgy and to mark the ending the day. These words will be familiar to at least some of you, because we prayed them when we used to have our Hear the Silence liturgies.

In peace we will lie down and sleep;

  for you alone, Lord, make us dwell in safety.

Abide with us, Lord Jesus,

  for the night is at hand and the day is now past.

As the night watch looks for the morning,

  so do we look for you, O Christ.

There was one additional set of responses, intended for use on Saturday evenings, because it has the Sunday communion liturgy fully in view:

Come with the dawning of the day

  and make yourself known in the breaking of the bread.

It is meant, of course, to evoke this story from the Gospel according to Luke. After their strange and wonderful encounter with the risen Lord, the two followers raced back from Emmaus to Jerusalem to tell the eleven remaining disciples. “[And] they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

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I use the words strange and wonderful to describe the experience these two travelers have of the risen Lord, and it was both of those things. Strange, because these two walked with him some distance, all the while listening as he unpacked and interpreted the Hebrew scriptures for them. So taken were they with his teaching that they insisted that he stay on with them, and join them for their meal. Still, not a clue as to who he was. And then comes that moment: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Finally, as that bread was broken, they could see… Yet strangeness continues, for as soon they can truly see, he’s gone. That’s the moment when the experience becomes wonder-filled. You can almost imagine the wide-eyed looks on their two faces, as they turn toward each other. Didn’t your heart all but burn when he was talking with us? No wonder… all wonder. And up they get, to race back to Jerusalem as quickly as they can.

That hike back to Jerusalem would have been quite entirely different from the one to Emmaus. In his comments on this story, Robert Hoch offers the following:

There are some walks that are longer than others—not because of the miles or even because of the landscape, but because of the burdens. I suspect [the walk to Emmaus] was one of the latter type. It was a seven-mile walk, a walk you would notice in your ankles and calves. But the real path they were walking was vastly longer and more difficult—it was the walk of hopes in shambles. It was the walk taken through the valley of disillusionment. It was a walk burdened with perhaps accusation or shame.

But the walk back? Unburdened from those things, the ground would have been covered more quickly, in spite of their tired feet. Fueled by wonder, and with this all but unbelievable news to share, the seven miles would suddenly have become anything but hard to cover. He spoke to us, he taught us, he blessed and broke bread for us… and we saw!

I’m quite struck by a few things in this story. Firstly, Jesus spoke to them at length—taught from the scriptures—and only then did he take, bless, and break bread to give to them. The dynamic interplay between word and symbolic act is clearly important here, and I’d venture to say that just as they needed the symbol to help them fully digest the word, without the word the symbol of broken bread would have only spoken so much to them. It is a kind of figure of sacramental worship, in which before the bread and wine of communion are taken, blessed in prayer, and shared, there is the word: the scriptural Word proclaimed, and also words preached, sung, and prayed. As my pastoral theology professor tried to drum into the heads of his students, sacraments and symbols require the interpretive word, otherwise they get lost in the mists of mere ritual and begin to verge on something like magical thinking. But when they come together in this story? They recognize him in the breaking of the bread, and they also recognize why his teaching had so lit up their hearts.

In a sermon preached to the newly baptized, St Augustine offers a compelling interpretive word to those who were about to receive communion for the first time… and to all who were there to share together in that sacramental feast. “If you are Christ’s body and members of it, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear ‘The body of Christ’, you reply ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring true!” (Sermon 272) If that sounds rather familiar, it is because you are recognizing it from the words I proclaim when I break our bread for communion. “This is the body of Christ: behold what you are, become what you receive.” Take it, receive it, and be it. Word and symbol flow together into action.

The other thing, though, that really strikes me about this story is that the meal in which they finally recognize Jesus is not shared in some sacred space like a temple or synagogue, and neither is it a specifically religious meal. It is not a Seder, or even a Sabbath meal. It is a traveler’s meal, taken together in borrowed quarters at the end of a long walk. It is, if you will, a meal at a highway diner or a picnic at a rest stop, and nothing more than that. And yet it becomes a sanctified meal and a moment of deep encounter with the living Christ.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with one of the students who attends saint ben’s, and she was telling me that she’d begun to pray Compline at home each night. She said that while she realized that that closing response with its prayer that Christ would be made known in the breaking of the bread was intended for Saturday evenings as a sort of pre-Sunday communion petition, she decided that she was going to use it every night. Her reasoning? Every day we sit down at tables and have meals—break bread, so to speak—and so every day and at every meal shouldn’t we be open to seeing the face of Jesus in those with whom we share food? Shouldn’t every meal, in other words, be understood as holy, whether at our own tables, in a diner, at a splendid bistro, spread out on a picnic blanket, or here at this table?

She was right, of course. So come, Lord Jesus, in the dawning of each day, and make yourself known to us, wherever we find ourselves breaking bread.

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