History of Hymns: O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread
By C. Michael Hawn
“O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread”
by Charles Wesley;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 613
O Thou who this mysterious bread
Didst in Emmaus break,
Return, herewith our souls to feed,
And to thy followers speak.
Eucharist was very important to Anglicans John and Charles Wesley. When living in Bristol, for example, they often stopped at the local Anglican parish for Communion in the morning before continuing on their way for their day’s activities. They encouraged members of the Society to follow this example.
Their Hymns for the Lord’s Supper in 1745 was one of the small pocket collections of texts on specific themes produced for home and Society worship. John Wesley prepared an abridgment of a treatise by Daniel Brevint (1616-1695), Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice: By Way of Discourse, Meditation, and Prayer Upon the Nature, Parts, and Blessings of Holy Communion (1763), which served as an introduction to the collection: “Let my heart burn to follow Thee now, when this Bread is broken at this Table, as the hearts of Thy disciples did when Thou didst break it in Emmaus.” This hymn is taken from Part II, entitled “As it [the Sacrament] is a Sign and a Means of Grace.” The four stanzas in this collection are, with minor changes, the four stanzas included in The United Methodist Hymnal.
The hymn is based on Section II of the Preface Brevint’s treatise: “Concerning the Sacrament, as it is a Memorial of the Sufferings and Death of Christ.” Each section ends with a prayer. In the middle of the prayer that concludes Section II is the sentence that inspired Charles Wesley to write this hymn: “Let not my heart burn with less zeal to follow and serve thee now, when this bread is broken at this table, than did the hearts of thy disciples, when thou didst break it in Emmaus.” This prayer was based on Luke 24:32: “And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (KJV)
This hymn celebrates Christ’s post-resurrection meal at Emmaus where he was recognized as the risen Christ (Luke 24:13-35) rather than the “Last Supper” with the disciples. The Last Supper is commonly assumed to be a paradigm for the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the Last Supper was not Christ’s final meal on earth. If the Last Supper had truly been Christ’s last meal with his followers, we might not celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It is in the meals of the risen Christ that the fuller meaning of the table is revealed to the Christian community.
Hymnologist Richard Watson notes the particular literary approach used by Charles Wesley: “The hymn very carefully uses the story of the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-34): the two disciples who are talking with the risen Christ are mourning his death until he reveals himself to them. This hymn puts us, the singers, in a similar position: we are ‘communing’ with Christ, as the disciples talked with him on the road. We ‘mourn’ our separation from him, our human situation, until the veil is removed and we see him as they did.” The technique of placing the singer into the middle of a biblical narrative is a familiar one used by Wesley in other passages. For example, “Come, O Thou traveler unknown” (The UM Hymnal, No. 386), based on Genesis 32:24-32, a story where Jacob wrestles with the angel, effectively follows a similar approach. The singer becomes a seeker [Jacob] searching for the one whose name is Love.
The opening line of “O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread” sets the tone: “mysterious bread.” Once again Richard Watson captures the spirit of the hymn: “And this is the same Lord who had broken bread, the ‘mysterious’ bread. In that beautiful first line the word ‘mysterious’ has the meaning of something that we cannot understand, a mystery, but also the sense, from the Greek, of something sacred and holy.”
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of grace, as demonstrated in the second stanza. God’s grace is abundant: “Unseal the volume of thy grace . . .” As we accept the bread, like the disciples, we “open our eyes to see thy face” (stanza two).
Just as John Wesley “felt [his] heart strangely warmed” on May 24, 1738, stanza three incorporates the same metaphor: “talk with us, and our hearts shall burn/with flames of fervent love.”
The final stanza continues the image of warmth. For the Wesleys, Communion “enkindle[s… a] heavenly zeal,” where we feel Christ’s pardon and recognize that “God and love are one.”
Land of Rest is a vigorous American tune. It has a lilting dance-like quality that fits the joy of a Resurrection banquet beautifully. It should not be slowed down to a funeral tempo. As we sing it, recall that the acclamations of our Communion services do not focus only on Christ’s death. Each time we celebrate Communion, we acclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!” This hymn affirms the second of the three acclamations.
For the full text, see http://www.hymnary.org/text/o_thou_who_this_mysterious_bread.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.