Dear People of Holy Comforter,
“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”
There is an odd, paradoxical moment in the Holy Eucharist. In the very midst of Communion, we have the Fraction, the breaking apart. That’s because there is an odd, paradoxical moment in the Christian Life. “Praying shapes believing” it is said;[i] and “as a person thinketh, so he is;”[ii] so, praying shapes us, shapes our lives in the Christian way. The purpose of common prayer is not to express what we think and feel so much as to let the ancient prayers lead us into deeper thoughts and feelings, deeper lives.
The Fraction is the odd, paradoxical moment I mean. The overarching movement of the Eucharist is Oblation and Sanctification. Priest jargon. Here’s what they mean. The “Oblation” is the act of giving ourselves to God. The gifts – the alms, the bread, and the wine – are brought to the altar from the nave where the congregation stands because they represent us. In response to the gospel we have just heard, the gospel in which God gives Godself to us and for us, we give ourselves to back God.
Every Eucharistic Prayer includes an Oblation in which we give the elements to God – “We present to you O God from your creation this bread and this wine” for example. That represents the gift of ourselves. Rite 1 makes it more explicit. “Here we offer and present unto thee O Lord our selves, our souls, and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” The very beginning of every Eucharistic Prayer is this same offering, though the change in word meanings over time obscures it. “Lift up your hearts” does not mean “get happy.” The heart originally did not mean the seat of the emotions but the center of the will. To “lift up our hearts” is to give our wills to God. This is the altar call, the giving of ourselves to God as an act of praise and thanksgiving for the grace we have already received.
That gift of self gracefully flows into the steam of sanctification. We invoke the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine (representing us) “to be the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”[iii] In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it’s more explicit than in most of Western Christianity. Eastern Eucharistic Prayers either omit or downplay the prayer to make the bread and the wine Christ. They go directly to a prayer to make the people the Body of Christ.[iv] Because of quirks in history, our Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church of Scotland include both prayers. After we have sanctified the bread and wine we pray “Sanctify us also . . . . “ We pray to become one with Christ metaphorically with the bread and wine, then directly in case someone missed the point.
The whole flow of the Eucharistic Prayer moves from our free gift of self to becoming one with Christ and one with each other in Christ; hence, “communion.” Our becoming one with Christ, culminates in our saying Jesus’ own prayer, “Our Father . . . . “ Having become him, we pray his prayer. The whole action is a flowing together. Then comes the Fraction. We are united in Christ, then we break Christ in two, break ourselves in two. That is the odd, paradoxical moment. What is that about?
God has given Godself to us in the gospel. We gave ourselves back to God in the oblation. God sanctified us in the Eucharistic Prayer. Now we are broken so that God can give us ourselves, sanctified and transformed, back again. We are “blessed, broken, and shared.”
This necessary breaking points to the pain, the vulnerability, the frailty, the need, and the failure of life. People strive so desperately to get it together in all sorts of ways. Whatever defines looking good, performing well, being impressive and admirable, we try so very hard to accomplish all these things to perfection. That is living well. That is success. That is winning. That is the good life, we are taught from the cradle.
To some degree we achieve the good life, we get it together. But there is a price. Once we get it together, we have to hold it together, which is – I am sorry to say – impossible. From pre-Socratic philosophy to the teachings of the Buddha to the story of Holy Week to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, we know, “things fall apart.”[v] It is their nature. The good life we construct is a house of cards. The fundamental fear that haunts us is not so much our own mortality as the repressed knowledge that the carefully crafted order of our lives is fragile on a good day and on a bad day it is a shambles.
And that, brothers and sisters, is meaning of the Fraction. It is the vulnerability, the pain, the failure, the need that erupts despite all our best efforts. It is “the tears in the nature of things” Coleridge said.[vi] It is the cross. “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free?” the gospel hymn asks. “No there’s a cross for everyone and there’s a cross for me.”
In today’s therapeutic, feel good, positive thinking Church, why do we still include the Fraction in our prayers, prayers which shape our believing and our lives? We would clearly be more marketable without it.
One reason to say the fraction is because it’s true. We spend so much effort denying the truth, it’s a relief to just come out and say it. Maybe that could free us up a bit to relax into reality instead of working so hard to uphold the fiction of our competence and success. I imagine a movie projector powered by a bicycle generator in which we are peddling as fast as we can all the time to keep the image on the screen.
But there’s a larger reason. The Way of the Cross is the way of salvation, the way we are healed, set free, and made whole. That plays out in our relationships. Communion after all is the ultimate relationship and the Eucharist puts us in communion with Christ only through our communion with each other.
The fraction is the place our relationships get real. When we stop impressing each other with how we’ve got it all together, with our well-lived lives, and admit our own brokenness, our own personal fraction, we are able to connect wound to bloody wound. We are able to get real, to be vulnerable failures together. That is the cross. That is salvation, because it turns out none of us can become whole on our own. We need each other. As Blessed John of the Cross said, “God has so ordained as to sanctify us through the frail instrumentality of each other.“
That’s what Church is for. Church exists to be a place where we can be broken, be wrong, be inadequate; and by the grace of God meditated through each other, it’s ok. We are still loved. And we discover our value in being loved for who we are in the depths of our souls, not for what we have achieved on the surface of our life projects. That’s what it means to be saved by grace.
Oft times, the Church betrays her true identity. Oft times the Church becomes a bit too respectable for Jesus. Church becomes a place to dress ourselves up, look good to one another, engage in Church chit chat banter with evasive style, keep it light, and generally follow the ways of the world. But blessed Paul says “Do not be conformed to the ways of the world. Be transformed by the renewing of your minds in Christ Jesus.”[vii] When we follow his guidance, when we are true to our better self, as that safe place to be open about what is not right in our lives, that sets us free to become more authentically People of the Way as the first Christians were called, people who have been to the cross and admit our mutual brokenness, our shared failure to save ourselves, the basic truth that we need Jesus and we need each other.
[ii] Proverbs 23: 7
[iii] The technical term for this prayer is the epiclesis (invoking of the Spirit) of the elements.
[iv] This prayer is known as the epiclesis of the people.
[v] Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming.
[vi] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Confessions Of An Inquiring Mind, drawing an idea from Virgil in the Aeneid. http://www.setonmagazine.com/latest-articles/the-tears-of-things-aeneas-the-trojan-model-of-humanity;
[vii] Romans 12: 2