STLT#406, Let Us Break Bread Together

I need more opportunities for communion in my life.

This is not my way of declaring myself in a particular theological camp. What I am declaring, however is that I recognize the power of what Jesus called for us to do – gather together, with intention, to eat, drink, and remember. To pray together. To work together. To welcome all. To feed all.

I’ve written about my Eucharistic journey elsewhere on this blog and in various essays and papers during seminary. I’m grateful that during seminary, I had the opportunity for communion every Thursday, and I listened carefully to hear whether I was welcome. Some weeks, I was, some weeks, well, not so much. But since then, I have had little opportunity. I have sought out communion services on precious Sundays off. I have attended UUCF’s communion at General Assembly when I have been able. And I made certain that a few hours before my ordination, a small communion service was held for fellow clergy.

And now, in these hard days (made a little easier by last night’s election results), I need this more than ever. I need to be called into sacred space to remember, to pray, to ritualize our connection with each other and the Divine.

I know this ritual doesn’t mean much to many UUs, and there are some who reject it outright because of their spiritual histories. But for me, and for many of us, the Eucharist is deeply meaningful and powerful. And I am glad we have these songs in our hymnal.

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,
oh, Lord, have mercy on me.

Let us drink wine together on our knees…

Let us praise God together on our knees…

Between the Lines only says it is a traditional song, so I asked the internet, and up pops the United Methodists’ Discipleship Ministries, a full site devoted to worship, music, preaching, as well as leadership, church planting, and international ministries. It’s…well, it’s amazing. And included in this site is hymn history and analysis. In the case of this song, it’s by C. Michael Hawn, Distinguished Professor of Church Music at Perkins School of Theology at SMU. He writes this about the history:

In a recently published article in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, written by United Methodist Hymnal editor, Dr. Carlton Young, he reveals the probable roots and major variants of this spiritual. Dr. Young suggests that this “spiritual was formed in the West African Gullah/Geechee slave culture that developed in the costal areas of South-Eastern colonial America, including St Helena Island, Beaufort, and Charleston, South Carolina . . ..”

The text of the version that is commonly sung in the United States was first published in The Journal of American Folklore (1925). The Journal included spirituals, as well as African American folk tales and proverbs that were collected by students at the Penn School on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.

A second version appeared in Saint Helena Island Spirituals (1925) by Nicholas Ballanta, a very significant collection that included 103 Gullah spirituals.

Now we don’t know its true origins, or even if this was a coded song as some might suggest. But as Hawn points out, we do know that

African American composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) arranged the first solo version with the three stanzas that are common to most hymnals in the United States. He also established the precedent of singing the final stanza up the octave. … This version of the spiritual was popularized by notable African American soloists in the mid-twentieth century such as Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marian Anderson.

And so I leave you with Robeson’s version:

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