Monday, May 9, 2011

Ad orientem and Communion kneeling, "Let us break bread together on our knees"

A friend recently pointed out to me that the popular African American spiritual, “Let us break bread together on our knees” – a hymn obviously inspired by the words of our past Sunday’s Gospel, Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35) – advocates both communion kneeling and liturgical celebration ad orientem. How shocking it is that this hymn, which among Catholic churches is heard almost exclusively in rather “progressive” parishes, promotes such traditional liturgical practices. Perhaps there is some hope for the future of so-called “liberal” Catholicism after all! (though we have our doubts)
Let us break bread together on our knees
The text of the hymn follows:
Let us break bread together on our knees,
Let us break bread together on our knees.
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.

Let us drink wine together on our knees,
Let us drink wine together on our knees.
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.

Let us praise God together on our knees,
Let us praise God together on our knees.
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.

Granting that some versions of this traditional spiritual have replaced “my face to the rising sun” with “my face to the Lord of life,” we must note that in its original formulation the hymn makes a very clear reference to the cosmic dimension of the Liturgy which is so aptly expressed in the practice of ad orientem – facing to the east, to the rising sun, to the Lord of life who is to come in glory.
Likewise, when the spiritual states, “Let us break bread together on our knees,” we are not to suppose the rather ridiculous image of breaking break apart by hitting it upon the knee; rather, the hymn refers to the breaking of the bread of which Cleopas and his companion speak in Luke’s Gospel. The African spiritual alludes to the traditional practice of receiving communion kneeling down – a practice which is also common now at all papal Masses.
Still, although the hymn has obvious merits, we might refrain from recommending its use in the Liturgy. It is quite difficult to see how such music “adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112)
Ratzinger on the reception of Holy Communion
It may be helpful to note Cardinal Ratzinger’s response to the question “How should we actually receive Holy Communion?”
The Cardinal’s reply, in part: “The signs of reverence we use have changed in the course of time. But the essential point is that our behavior should give to inner recollection and reverence an outward bodily expression. Earlier, Communion used to be received kneeling, which made perfectly good sense. Nowadays it is done standing. But this standing, too should be standing in reverence before the Lord. The attitude of kneeling ought never to be allowed to disappear from the Church.”
Another question was brought forward, “Communion in the hand, or directly in the mouth?” Ratzinger’s response, “I wouldn’t want to be fussy about that.” (God and the World, pgs. 409-410)
Ratzinger on ad orientem
“A common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue, but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, chapter three)
“The physical orientation, the Congregation [for Divine Worship] says, must be distinguished from the spiritual. Even if a priest celebrates versus populum, he should always be oriented versus Deum per Iesum Christum (towards God through Jesus Christ). Rites, signs, symbols, and words can never exhaust the inner reality of the mystery of salvation.” (from his “Forward” to Turning towards the Lord by U.M. Lang)


Magister Christianus said...

This has always been one of my favorite hymns. We used to sing it in the small Protestant church where I grew up.

Dismas said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,

How promising to see you introduce music to your blog, a very welcome addition indeed! Here is one version of the hymn from YouTube, but there are many available:

Dismas said...

Some may prefer this choral version instead:

Fr. Larry said...

Read my comment on this issue and the document by Pope Paul Vi which stated that while Holy Communion on the hand is an aberration, the Holy See will approve it.

Anonymous said...

The two times I was a eucharistic minister I was moved by the faith and reverence I saw in the peoples' faces. I think you can be kneeling in your heart. I'll always prefer actual kneeling though.

Anonymous said...

Methinks, a liberal Catholic would - in case - insist on kneeeling, physically breaking a loaf of "consecrated" bread and eating it from his own hands.

As you rightly say, liberal Catholicism is a contradiction in terms, a spiritual and liturgical oxymoron.


Anonymous said...

I really wonder at this posting...the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn't at all refer to kneeling to receive the Bread of Life. In fact Jesus instituted the Eucharist at supper; did so as well with the two disciples after the Resurrection.

I know of no Protestant church (outside perhaps Anglican or Episcopal) that ever used a communion rail or even had people kneel to receive the bread (since they don't acknowledge the Eucharist as being the real presence).

I'm sorry I can't bring it to mind, but I know that in one of the readings from the Office of Readings, one of the Fathers specifically refers to receiving the host in the hand...going back some centuries.

After drawing some kind of parallel, you then go on to suggest the hymn isn't even appropriate? What exactly was the message here?

You usually do much better than this...this seems a bit muddled.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm not sure how to respond ... here's an attempt.

First, you are correct, nothing in the story of Emmaus road speaks of communion kneeling or Mass ad orientem -- I never said it did.
What I did say is that the popular hymn "Let us break bread together on our knees" is based on the text of Emmaus road ("the breaking of the bread") and that this hymn very clearly advocates ad orientem and communion kneeling.

Second, I made no mention of Protestant practice ... not sure what that matters ... obviously, the hymn is referring to a tradition which was no longer in common practice (at least not in the communities where the hymn was sung).

Third, I have not advocated the practices of ad orientem and communion kneeling ... the African spiritual did ... if that is contrary to the supposed teaching of some Church Father (and I am well aware of the variety of opinions on this point), let the protestant hymn-writer answer for it.

Moreover, I would mention that the quotes taken from Ratzinger were specifically chosen to show that, although he has an obvious preference for kneeling and ad orientem, the Holy Father's primary concern seems to be the internal dispositions of the faithful.
An internal and spiritual kneeling; likewise an internal and spiritual ad orientem.

Finally, you wrote: "You usually do much better than this" ... I will take that as a compliment. I hope it is permissible that (since this is a blog) I might occasionally post a less serious article (perhaps even one that is "a bit muddled").

Anonymous said...

In my sister's Methodist church they use a communion rail at which the congregation kneels to receive communion. How is it that other places are more reverent than the typical Catholic Church?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

[in a comment deleted on account of a problem with the blogger website] anonymous wrote:

"In my sister's Methodist church they use a communion rail at which the congregation kneels to receive communion. How is it that other places are more reverent than the typical Catholic Church?"

Kathy said...

I'm sorry, but I've never been able to stand that song ever since I first had to sing it in fifth grade. I'm embarrassed I ever did. It sounds like a drinking song. "Let us drink wine together..." It's heretical. It's not bread and wine we are consuming but the Body, Blood Soul and Divinity of Christ. And ... the rising sun???

Anonymous said...

In the UK kneeling for communion is common in most Anglican churches - some of whom also use eastward facing celebration of the Eucharist. Both of these are very rare in the RC church.

ServusMariaeN said...

I went for years daily to the Vetus Ordo (Forma Extraordinaria) and it really changed and formed my piety and prayer life. When I moved and had no access to the Vetus Ordo I knew that I would be presented with the dilemma of how to receive the Blessed Sacrament. At first I drove 50+ miles one way to the motherhouse of the Fathers of Mercy knowing they only use a communion rail but the price of gas went up and I had to make a decision. I prayed about it and didnt want to make a spectacle of myself, or appear "holier than THOU" but out of devotion I knew that had to kneel. I feared being told to stand up or being "catechised" about how to receive. Needless to say, I still make sure I am the last one in order not to cause anyone to inadvertently to trip. I was told by a wise priest that I should try to be an example. At the name of JESUS every knee should bow.

Post a Comment

When commenting, please leave a name or pseudonym at the end of your comment so as to facilitate communication and responses.

Comments must be approved by the moderator before being published.