On the breaking of bread

Just a moment of reflection from the 2015 North American Academy of Liturgy conference in Minneapolis this year.

This conference includes a concluding banquet, enfolded in a table prayer service inspired by Jewish table prayer. The service this year was beautiful, blessing and sharing light, water, bread, and wine, and concluding with a lovely thanksgiving sung in rounds (by Gabe Huck and Tony Alonso, if I remember right – I forgot to steal a copy of the worship aid, but maybe someone can assist me in the comments).

The bread on the table was large loaves of crisp crusty white bread. It was a struggle to break the bread, especially at the pace required by the liturgy. We prayed the prayer and then the first person at the table hastily wrestled a morsel off the first loaf, while the second person held the plate (and perhaps her laughter). By the time the plate reached me near the end, we had already finished the next blessing (the cups of wine) and taken a first sip. My neighbor had pulled off a very large piece and broke half of it off for me. I gladly abstained from having to wrestle with the bread myself.

It was comforting, somehow, to be reminded that it is, in actual embodied fact and not at all metaphorically, immensely difficult to break bread together as a worshipping community. No wonder we struggle so much and so visibly to do it.

Here’s to a year of humbly consenting to see our brokenness.

9 comments

  1. Thank you for your post. What a beautiful experience!

    Liturgies like this remind me of the deep connection between the Eucharist and banqueting. Our liturgical celebrations should not be “stale,” and they cannot always be tidy. Liturgy can be messy – even the Eucharist – and that can be okay.

    It is important to acknowledge that the sacraments are rooted in the ordinary, but are also an elevation of the ordinary. For instance, the Eucharist is a meal, but it is also something more. Our sacramental system breaks down when we fail to see the connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

  2. The Liturgy should also lift you out of the ordinary. It’s a meeting of heaven and earth. I can’t see that as messy, stale, or untidy unless man makes it that way of his own accord.

  3. Yes, Kim, Tony Alonso and Gabe Huck were the composers of the music for this year’s table prayer. Allow me to provide a bit of history and commentary on this annual meeting practice.

    I began attending the annual NAAL meeting in 1996 and, as best I can recall, the format of this table prayer (framing the meal at the Berakah banquet) became the regular practice not long after that. Michael Joncas composed the music and texts that were used annually for nearly a decade. Then NAAL launched a competition for another musical composition for the table prayer (the actual format remaining the same — light, wine, and bread were the original order, although this year the pattern was light, water, bread, and wine, a change not lost on Rabbi Ruth Langer (in her subsequent Berakah Award speech, that is, the reversal in order such that bread was blessed before wine). Winner of that contest several years ago was the team of John Foley and Don Saliers, whose composition was used in years alternating with the Joncas. The Alonso and Huck work, I agree, is nice, indeed. I don’t know when it was completed or first used, but it was my first experience of it (however, I missed last year’s NAAL meeting … And, of course, I’m no historian of the NAAL meetings, whereas Ed Foley is the official archivist of the organization).

    In her Berakah Award recipient’s speech, Rabbi Ruth Langer (professor of comparative theology at Boston College), in addition to noting the reversal of the wine-bread order in this year’s rendition of the banquet’s table prayer (a bit of an aside, as I recall), Ruth discussed at some length the use of other symbols in the annual NAAL rituals. Poignant was her criticism of sprinkling rites, insofar as they evoke for her Christian baptismal signification (and, if I understood her correctly, painfully evoke the history of forced baptisms). NAAL has struggled over the years with how to worship as an ecumenical and, then further, an interfaith body.

    1. @Bruce Morrill – comment #5:
      As NAAL president for this meeting, just a little more information on this rite. My first NAAL was in St Louis in January, 1990. The Joncas table prayer, presided over by John Baldovin and Kathleeh Hughes, was already being used then. Prior to using one of these now three or four alternating forms (I believe there is also fourth composed by Ruth Duck), the pattern was to celebrate an academy Eucharist before the banquet according to the rite of the current president. That has not been done since before the 1990 meeting, and is now an official position of NAAL, and since then a version of the table prayer has been used as “academy worship” for the banquet itself. Further, this was not the first time for the Alonso-Huck composition, though it is the first time in a few years. We are in a process of using one of these versions for two or three years at a time, and then switching to another so that we might have alternate patterns.

      With regard to Ruth’s wonderful address, I do not know if she was talking about an “academy” worship in which a sprinkling rite was done, a service conducted by a particular group at the academy to which others were invited, or if she was talking about an experience in another worship setting.

      Thanks.

  4. What a beautiful reflection, Kimberly!! It is, indeed, often difficult to break bread with one another…..and not always because of the texture of the bread (although you metaphoric experience was a wonderful image!) Often, we find it difficult to “sit at table” and “break bread” because of who is sitting with us…..sad, but sometimes true.

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