Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “One Bread, One Body”

History of Hymns: “One Bread, One Body”

By C. Michael Hawn

"One Bread, One Body," by John B. Foley;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 620

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:3-5, NIV).*

Scripture is replete with images that stress the unity or oneness of the body of Christ. Congregations celebrate the ecumenical observance of World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday of October, often singing “One Bread, One Body,” one of the most popular Eucharistic hymns written since the Roman Catholic reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

This hymn first appeared in the collection, Wood Hath Hope (1978), by John Foley, S.J. (b. 1939). Its memorable refrain draws directly upon I Corinthians 10:16-17: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ: The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (NRSV).

Other biblical references include Galatians 3:28 in stanza 1: “Gentile or Jew, servant of free, woman or man, no more.” I Corinthians 12 refers to “one body” in several places. A prayer in the early Christian document Didache, dated from 50-120 C.E., provides a basis for thoughts in the third stanza, "Grain for the fields, scattered and grown, gathered to one, for all":

We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom. (Chapter 9:4) http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html)

The theme of unity in Christ has been prominent in Communion songs since the Second Vatican Council. While many Protestant congregations often focus on the suffering of Christ following his last supper with his disciples, an emphasis appropriate for Holy Week, the communion of believers as one body gathered together is of equal importance. This hymn helps us make a shift from reflection on Christ's suffering to thanksgiving (Eucharist).

The simplicity of Father Foley’s music makes this text, rich in biblical and historical images, readily accessible to congregations. The guitar-style music reflects the folk-like melodies and memorable refrain of the 1960s and 1970s when the guitar Mass was prominent. In the Roman Catholic Church, communicants receive the Eucharistic elements in a procession. The memorable refrain allows them to sing on the move without the aid of a hymnal. In email correspondence with this author, Father Foley affirms this:

"One Bread” has been so popular, I think, because it expresses the unity of Christians through the ages and throughout the world. This unity is founded, of course, on Jesus’ directive to eat his body and drink his blood — a startling concept, but a deep symbol of unity. The other reason, it would seem, is the pace of the music, which matches the walking speed of people on the way to and from Communion.

Carl P. Daw, Jr., comments on the theological significance of this hymn:

All these biblical allusions combine to support the hymn’s central affirmation that the Lord’s Supper symbolizes and effects Christian unity despite the diversity of the church’s members. This is a radical and countercultural proclamation in the midst of social and political pressures to distinguish and solidify affinity groups along lines of race ethnicity, gender and income (Daw, 2016, 529).

Father Foley was born in Peoria, Illinois. His education at St. Louis University, a historic Jesuit institution, includes two master's degrees in the fields of philosophy and theology; and he has a Ph.D. in liturgical theology from The Graduate Theological Union. He was ordained as a Jesuit Priest in 1982. He is known as one of the “St. Louis Jesuits” who have contributed to liturgical music in the years following Vatican II. Others include Dan Schutte, S.J. (b. 1947), composer of “Here I Am, Lord” (“I the Lord of sea and sky,” 1981—The UM Hymnal, 593) and Bob Dufford, S.J. (b. 1943), whose most famous song is “Be Not Afraid” (1975). Father Foley also has received extensive formal education in music, including studies in London, the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and the University of Minnesota with well-known composers Paul Fetler and Dominick Argento.

Father Foley, a member of the Society of Jesuits, has authored many scholarly articles. The book Creativity and the Roots of Liturgy (1993) reflects his application of philosophy and theology to liturgy. He has more than 165 published liturgical musical compositions. Recent classical compositions include A Choral Symphony in four movements (2002); an Advent Mystery Play, Like Winter Waiting (1999); a flute sonata, Flutefire (1999); and Mass of the Pilgrim Church (1997).

Father Foley served on the faculty of St. Louis University as distinguished liturgical theologian and was the founder and first director for the Center for Liturgy at St. Louis University.

For further reading:

Daw, Carl P., Jr. Glory to God: A Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Didache, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html

* New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director for the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University