In preparation for Communion, there is a small yet significant ritual called the Fraction Rite or the Fraction of the Bread. The priest breaks the consecrated host and makes preparation for the distribution of Holy Communion, with the assistance of the deacon. While these rituals are conducted, the assembly recites or sings the simple — normally three-part — invocation to the Lamb of God: “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” The last invocation ends with “grant us peace.” The text echoes the proclamation of John the Baptist made to his disciples as Jesus approached them along the banks of the River Jordan, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29)
The traditional rationale for the Fraction Rite was to break the one consecrated host so that all could receive from the one Bread of Life. The pastoral practice, from time immemorial, has been to prepare multiple small hosts to facilitate distribution for large assemblies of the baptized. The fraction ritual still remains in order to fulfill what Jesus did in his ministry. This is recalled during the consecration in the words of institution. The priest remembers what Jesus did on the night before he died: “He took bread and, giving thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take this, all of you, and eat of it.’”
In other instances found throughout the Gospels, Jesus broke bread. Before the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus broke the bread. (Mk 6:41) The Emmaus travelers, returning to Jerusalem, gleefully told the disciples how Jesus made himself known “in the breaking of the bread.” (Lk. 24:35)
The breaking of bread, even before Christ, was a ritual rich in meaning. The traditional Jewish blessing for a meal still calls for the host of the meal to break bread saying a simple prayer of praise: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” The expression “breaking bread” is often used in ordinary conversation in reference to sharing a meal.
So even though there may not be a practical necessity to break the large host for the distribution of Communion, the Fraction Rite is a necessary part of the Eucharistic Liturgy. We recall what Jesus did. In doing so, Jesus does for us what he did for his disciples: He takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples.
The Fraction Rite is a powerful paradoxical symbol. By the breaking of the bread, offered as the Lord’s own body, we are united with Jesus and with one another. The breaking of the host does not fragment the body of Christ; it brings about the unity of the Church. We are made one body in Christ through the breaking of the Bread of Life. By the Fraction Rite and the Communion Rite, we all share in the one body and blood of the Lord. These rituals fulfill the intercession of the priest during the Eucharistic Prayer: “Humbly we pray that, partaking of the body and blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.”
In the Fraction Rite, Jesus is not diminished; we are made whole by becoming what we receive. His great act of charity gathers our diversity into his one holy body. We become part of his one acceptable sacrifice to the Father. As Paul told us in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (II Cor 8:9) Jesus enriches us by bringing us into communion with him and with one another.
In his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (“The Sacrament of Charity”), the late Pope Benedict reflected on this unifying dimension of the Eucharist. He reminded us that “union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own.” (SC, 89) He then insisted, “The relationship between the Eucharistic mystery and social commitment must be made explicit.” (SC, 89) The reflections of Pope Benedict shine a light on the humble gestures of the Fraction Rite. The simple practice of preparing the Holy Eucharist for distribution is revealed as an essential work of charity in the celebration of the great sacrament of charity.
This work of charity is also a work of creation. Jesus is the new Adam (cf. I Cor 15:22) from whose wounded side, while he was in the sleep of death, the Church came into being. Jesus was the firstborn of the New Creation. (cf. Col 1:15) The solidarity of humanity was bound even more tightly between the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. “You who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.” Jesus created “in himself one new person.” (Eph 2:13-15)
The Fraction Rite inspires the Church’s many works of charity and teaches us that the charitable works are always at the service of communion. As the Bread of Christ is broken so that we may be united with him, our charitable works strive to unite us “with all those who have become, or who will become, Christ’s own.” (cf. SC, 89)
The celebration of the Eucharist expresses the necessity of the Gospel of Life. Knowing that the Lord Jesus desired to unite all humanity to himself through the blood of his cross (cf. Col 1:19-20), we cannot say to another, no matter how small or insignificant, “I do not need you.” (cf. I Cor 12:21) The Bread of Life broken for us binds us more closely to one another.
The creative work of the Lord’s sacrifice on Calvary continues in the work to end the practice of abortion and accompanying women in the nurturing of their children in the womb. The Lord’s death tears down the wall of racism that fractures communities. The outstretched hands of the Lord, pierced for our offenses, reach into jails and prisons. The risen Jesus continues to reveal himself when bread is broken for the hungry and homeless.
The humble gesture of the Fraction Rite may escape our attention during the celebration of the Eucharist. Yet it is a necessary ritual made so by Jesus himself who took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and offered it to his disciples saying, “This is my body.” Most of our works of charity are also humble, simple gestures of help and hope. By receiving the living Christ in Holy Communion, we become part of his mystical body, compelled to continue the Lord’s redeeming work of charity until he comes again.