Monday, April 12, 2010

The Fraction Rite

Theologians talk about the four-fold activity of Jesus in the eucharist: he takes, he blesses, he breaks, he shares.

Our eucharistic celebration follows that activity: the gifts are taken (at the presentation of the gifts), blessed (in the eucharistic prayer) -- and now, directly before communion, broken, so as to be shared.

The fraction rite, as this moment is called, is an often overlooked little moment in the liturgy. Coming as it does on Sundays at the same time as the congregation is singing the Lamb of God, it's easily missed. It's not the most dramatic action, either -- the presider breaks a host that is raised (kind of dramatic), then breaks off a little piece off and places in the cup (not terribly dramatic); and he then breaks up the communion hosts -- be they wafers or little chunks of unleavened bread -- so that they can be distributed. With the exception of that first gesture, it really is the kitchen table moment of the liturgy. Grandma on Thanksgiving, getting things all ready.

And that is a lot of the fraction rite's value -- it grounds our sense of the eucharist in the concrete. This is a feast; we have come to a table; it's all about food being shared and us being fed.

The dropping of the very small bit of the body into the blood to my mind again makes the eucharist look like a very precise science experiment. I almost expect to see a little puff of smoke when the body hits the blood, as if to indicate, ah yes, the transformation is complete.

A really, really complicated (and utterly endearing) attempt by a kid to "make a puff of smoke."

Over the centuries, we've come to interpret this gesture as the uniting of Christ's body and blood -- although why exactly these two need to be united before communion remains unclear. The eucharistic rite being over, it has no sacramental effect. It's not as though we also trickle a bit of the blood onto the rest of the consecrated hosts.

But the origins of this gesture are very interesting. In the early centuries of the church, it became the practice of the bishop of Rome to add a small bit of the consecrated host from the prior day's eucharist to the blood before communion. And this was done to represent the belief that what was being celebrated today was not something new but continuous. There was but one ongoing eucharistic celebration, and each day we participate in it.

After that liturgy, hosts consecrated at that Mass would be brought to each of the parishes of Rome, and they would drop a small portion into the cup during their fraction rites, as a way of symbolizing that their celebration was a part of the bishop's celebration, as well.

The point of the action, then, was to make very tangible the unity of all who do or have ever celebrated the eucharist. We are all a part of one massive, Jesus-led feast.

There's probably no way of bringing that practice back. But keeping its origins in mind can certainly give the gesture a greater depth of meaning.

I'm the one in the black suit on the left.


Anonymous said...

I remember that activity in the eucharist had five dimensions: he takes, he give thanks, he blesses, he breaks, he shares.
Am I wrong?

rev. Henri

Anonymous said...

The whole act is Eucharist (Thanksgiving), so only 4 parts....takes, blesses, breaks, and shares