Every time you attend Mass, something gets broken. And you may not even notice it.
But when this break happens, it assures us of the resurrection of Christ and of our own triumph over death.
One of the important parts of the Mass is the Communion Rite. It begins with the Lord’s Prayer and ends with the Prayer after Communion.
In between, there is something called “the fraction rite.” Since it takes place right after the Kiss of Peace — and while we in the congregation begin singing the “Lamb of God” (Agnus Dei) — you might miss it.
During the fraction rite, the priest takes the newly consecrated host that has become the Body of Christ, and breaks it over the paten. He later breaks it again, maybe several times, and one of those fractures results in one very small piece of the host.
This small piece of the Body of Christ is called the fermentum, and it is dropped into the chalice that holds the Blood of Christ. As the priest places the fermentum into the chalice, he quietly prays, “May the mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that this commingling, and its accompanying prayer, should remind all believers of the salvation which Christ brought us through both his bodily death and his bodily resurrection: “The priest breaks the bread and puts a piece of the host into the chalice to signify the unity of the Body and Blood of the Lord in the work of salvation, namely, of the living and glorious Body of Jesus Christ” (no. 83).
Even though most of us might miss the fraction rite and commingling, they are powerful moments in the Mass. The Paschal Mystery of Christ is made present to us during the Communion Rite. This mystery takes us from the Last Supper — where Jesus himself broke the bread — to Calvary — where a spear pierced his side so that blood and water flowed out — to the Resurrection — where Jesus’ body and blood were reunited into new and eternal life.
During these few, brief moments, we travel far in faith. Just as the breaking of the bread at the fraction rite takes us to the Upper Room where Jesus broke bread before his death, so does the commingling take us on the road to Emmaus. Here again, Jesus broke the bread, this time after his resurrection. Those moments of broken bread remind us of how God brought about great, unifying power through Jesus. It’s the power that brought life to what was dead — and promises us eternal life.
This powerful link between the fraction rite and the commingling is explained by the Vatican Office of Liturgical Celebrations by quoting 19th century Benedictine Abbot Prosper Gueranger: “What is signified by this mingling of the particle with the blood which is in the chalice? … Its object is to show, that at the moment of our Lord’s resurrection, his blood was reunited to his body; by flowing again in his veins as before. It would not have sufficed if his soul alone had been reunited to his body; his blood must necessarily be so likewise, in order that the Lord might be whole and complete. Our savior, therefore, when rising, took back his blood which was erstwhile spilled on Calvary …”
So the fraction rite and the commingling — the breaking and uniting — affirm that the body that was broken and the blood that was poured out on Calvary’s cross were made whole again and raised up to new and eternal life at Easter’s tomb.
This new life of Jesus is so powerful that it was able to set broken hearts on fire when they met it. The same is true today. We can bring our brokenness to Christ in the sacrament, and he will give us what we need to experience wholeness in him.
Speaking of hearts on fire, that small piece of the host — the fermentum — comes to us from a Latin word that also gives us the word “fermentation.” The original Latin word (the verb fermentare) meant “to ferment, leaven or to cause to rise.” Another sign of resurrection.
Jesus, while he walked on earth, also taught that the Kingdom of God is like yeast that leavens dough (Mt 13:33).
The Kingdom of God is eternal, and the fermentum at Communion also has an eternal quality. The risen Christ lives now in the Kingdom as well as in the bread and wine of the sacrament. He also lives with his church at all times, both in the sacrament of the altar and in each person who receives the eucharistic bread and who then goes out to ferment the world.
That little piece of broken bread, that we almost miss seeing, reminds us not only of Christ’s resurrection, but of our own call to follow him into new life. Even though the celebration of the Mass ends, the ongoing Eucharist of Christ — the lived presence of Christ through his church — does not; it goes forth into a broken world, bringing new life.
Sources: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal; “Responses to 101 Questions of the Mass”; “The Church at Prayer: the Eucharist”; “Dictionary of the Liturgy”; ewtn.com; moodycatholic.com; vatican.va; liturgybrisbane.net.au; “Catholic Answers” at catholic.com; clarionherald.info; liturgialatina.org; etymonline.com; the “Order of the Mass” at usccb.org; catholiceducation.org; prayingthemass.com; “Explaining the Mass” at verdekc.org and the catholicnewsagency.com.