“Breaking Bread” and the Eucharist

Luke 24:41-42 has an interesting account of Jesus post-Resurrection: “And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. “What strikes me about this isn’t what’s in the account, but what isn’t: a blessing. It’s not that Jesus didn’t bless the food before He ate it (He almost certainly did), but that Luke didn’t consider it important enough to include. The important thing was that Jesus ate (and hence, was not a ghost or an illusion). Luke isn’t just writing a play-by-play of every step Jesus Christ took in His earthly life: he’s including details which he thinks are particularly important.

In sharp contrast to Luke 24:41-42, there is an incredible pattern of the New Testament just hammering, over and over, this notion of blessing and breaking bread. The two actions are connected. The bread is blessed and broken. It’s never just that they took bread and ate it. It’s a specific and liturgical action.

More interesting is the fact that the bread in question is broken, not torn. In other words, it’s not leaven bread: it’s continually unleaven bread. This isn’t a detail likely to be missed on an early Jewish audience, who celebrate the Feast of Unleaven Bread… Passover. The unleaven bread is tied directly to the Passover lamb. Additionally, “Breaking Bread” was an early term for the Eucharist, and tied to the miraculous transformation which the Feeding of the Five Thousand foreshadowed and the Last Supper fulfilled. Look at the Biblical evidence. Notice the emphasis and connection on blessing and breaking bread together. These are strange details to include, particularly because they’re included every single time:

I. Feeding of the Five Thousand:

All four Gospels mention the Jesus takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it. Now, He’s also blessing and tearing up the fish, but notice how that detail isn’t considered important by comparison:

  • Matthew 14:19-20 Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds, and they all ate and were satisfied. They picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets.
  • Mark 6:41-43 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
  • Luke 9:16 Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people.
  • John 6:11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

Remember that this happened near the Passover (John 6:4).This is all very tied to the Last Supper, which also involves Breaking Bread on the Passover to feed the masses.

II. Paul’s Shipwreck:
Acts 27:33-38 says that:

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

Once again, this is a symbol or type for the Eucharist. This time, it’s in winter (it’s “after the Fast,” that is, Yom Kippur — see Acts 27:9), yet Paul uses unleavened bread, instead or normal leavened bread.

III. The Institution of the Eucharist:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul all describe the Institution of the Eucharist in great detail, and all hone in on the central detail of the blessing and breaking of the Bread:

  • Matthew 26:26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
  • Mark 14:22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
  • Luke 22:19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
  • 1 Corinthians 11:23-24 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

The Bread, which is His Body, also symbolizes His Body. That is, He could have consecrated anything: fish, a pumpkin, noodles, whatever, but He chose bread. The obvious answer is that bread looks vaguely like flesh, so the visible sign helps us to understand the invisible reality, just as the visible act of going under water and coming out helps us to understand the invisible reality of dying and rising with Christ, and just like the visible sign of water symbolizes the invisble reality of the Holy Spirit’s washing us. By breaking the Bread, He’s signifying His own death.

I think that the above paragraph is basically agreed upon by Protestants and Catholics, but if you plug that logic… that “breaking of the bread” means “the Last Supper,” it’s incredibly significant for the feeding of the masses in John 6, and the following situations after the Resurrection:

IV. New Testament Eucharistic Celebrations in the Early Chruch:
In St. Matthew’s Cathedral out here in D.C., the wall behind the tabernacle has some beautiful artwork of the two disciples at Emmaus looking at the (real life) tabernacle, with the words, “they recognized Him in the Breaking of the Bread.” It comes from the incredible account in Luke 24. Jesus walks with two disciples, explaining Scripture (this prefigures the Liturgy of the Word, the half of Mass before the Liturgy of the Eucharist), and then, in Luke 24:30-31,

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.

The timing is significant. The Emmaus disciples’ report to the Apostles says as much in Luke 24:35,

Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

That’s either Eucharistic or nonsensical. It’s not like Jesus had such a distinctive way of breaking bread that it could only have been Him. No, Jesus breaks the Bread, and they recognize Him. Then He disappears, but leaves behind His Body in the form of the Bread. Jesus isn’t even being particularly subtle here.

He does this as well in His third Resurrection appearance to the Apostles in John 21:12-14,

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Here, the Disciples already recognized Him. This scene is preceded by the miraculous catch of fish: Jesus appeared on the shore while the Disciples were out fishing, and by John 21:7, they recognize Him, with John declaring “It is the Lord!” and Peter impulsively taking his clothes off and jumping in the water to swim to Jesus. (Have I mentioned St. Peter is my confirmation saint?). Jesus prepares coals to cook the fish while the Disciples drag in 153 fish. By the time Jesus calls them to breakfast, all of the Disciples knew who He was. Yet John still marks the breaking of the bread as “the third time Jesus appeared to His Disciples” after the Resurrection. Immediately after breakfast, Jesus commissions Peter to be His shepherd. My point is that the meal comes in the center of Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles, and it was right here that John says, “This was now the third time Jesus appeared,” right after the breaking of the bread.

Then there’s the description of the early Apostolic life in Acts 2:42-47,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

In the early Church, the Christians went to Synagogue for the Liturgy of the Word (the readings and homily), and then retired to their houses for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Or how about Paul’s Sunday Mass in Troas in Acts 20:6-11,

But we sailed from Philippi after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days. On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left.

The fact that it’s a Mass is mentioned only in passing, to set the scene for the unusual events (a man dying and being resurrected). Note also the sequence: the “Breaking of the Bread” is more than a meal — by midnight, they haven’t even gotten to the Breaking of the Bread itself.

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