Sunday, November 21, 2010


Fraction: The ritual act of breaking bread in the Lord’s Supper.

A while back it dawned on me that for some time I had not seen (nor heard reference to) the “fraction” in the Lord’s Supper at the Lutheran Church I often attend. So I started to pay closer attention to the places in the liturgy when the presider might break the bread for all to see—but I didn’t see it, and neither did my wife.

So, one Sunday after the service we politely confronted the pastor with a query, “Where was the fraction?” His answer was that there wasn’t one, because the Lutherans didn’t really do that, although sometimes they did.

Above all, they would avoid breaking the bread in conjunction with the Words of Institution:
“The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread,
and after giving thanks to God,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take, eat.
This is my body, given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”

Such mimicry is considered inappropriate in that the presider would seem to usurp the place of Jesus. Also, the verbs “”took,” “gave thanks,” “broke” and “gave” are descriptive of what Jesus did, while “take” and “eat” are his commands for us to do. Some have indicated that it is furthermore inaccurate to break the bread as a symbol of the “breaking” of Jesus’ body, especially since the writer of the Gospel of John went out of his way to assure readers that no bones had been broken at the crucifixion in fulfillment of ancient prophecies (19:33-37).

This challenges a common practice among Presbyterians which is to do exactly what the Lutherans won’t do—break the bread visibly before the congregation using the text of the Words of Institution.

I’d agree with the desire to avoid what our Lutheran friends call “mimicry,” and the fraction should not take place with the Words of Institution. When we pretend to recreate the past, by so doing we invite the worshippers to take a journey into olden times and miss the present reality of sharing with one another the Bread of Life given to us by the Risen Christ. The same sort of problem exists when, for example, on Maundy Thursday the Table is set with twelve places to imitate the original meal in the upper room—it is liturgical nostalgia and the event loses its impact in the here and now.

Rather than being a script to accompany the rite of fraction, the Words of Institution are the warrant for our having this Table Celebration in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore their proper placement would be at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Sacrament, or possibly just before distribution of the elements. (The Words of Institution do not belong in the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer; when used there, they are a distraction.)

In any case, there should be a visible fraction. The main reason to break the bread is, of course, in order to share it and this should be made obvious to all present. In this sense the breaking of the bread to share is a visual sign of the giving of Christ’s body for each and all of us. It is helpful to mark the first breaking of the bread for distribution, and to do it for all to see.

This might be done in silence very effectively, with a simple invitation to the people to come to the Table. Or words (such as those provided in the Book of Common Worship(1993) might be used making the ritual act of fraction verbal as well as visual.

When and how is the Communion bread broken in your church? Do you use a single loaf to break, or is it already cut or broken before the service? Or do you use wafers? What is said when the bread is broken, if anything?


  1. Tell your Lutheran friend that there is abundant reference in the New Testament to the use of the breaking of the bread with specific reference to the Lord’s Supper, especially in the book of Acts, but also in Paul (I Cor. 10:16) and most convincingly, in Luke (24:35). Not to break the bread in the sight of the congregation is to remove a powerful symbol, particularly if it is done in silence, and not in any mimicking show in conjunction with the words of institution.

  2. In our congregation, I visibly break the bread and pour the cup. I believe the power of pairing Word and Sacrament is linked to the tangible nature of Sacrament. We see, touch, smell, taste and hear words spoken in celebration of the Eucharist.

    I don't think the presider usurps the place of Jesus by breaking the bread and pouring the cup when the words of institution are spoken. We believe in the Real Presence of Christ because of what Christ does/is doing. I don't think anyone confuses the presider with the Risen Lord in the celebration of the sacraments anymore than they would confuse a reader of the Gospels with the One to whom the Gospels point. Remembering the Last Supper also participates in the reality of the Body of Christ gathered at Table in the present moment and reminds us of the foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. Perhaps the interface of past, present and future becomes kairos time, rather than chronos.


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