1 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.
2 Let us drink wine together on our knees;
let us drink wine together on our knees. [Refrain]
3 Let us praise God together on our knees;
let us praise God together on our knees. [Refrain]
Source: Hymns of Promise: a large print songbook #183
|First Line:||Let us break bread together on our knees|
|Title:||Let Us Break Bread Together|
|Meter:||184.108.40.206 with refrain|
|Source:||African American spiritual|
|Refrain First Line:||When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun|
Some of the stanzas of this African American spiritual may date back to the eighteenth century. Other stanzas have been added by oral tradition. A look through modern hymnals will reveal an array of variations on the text. The most notable alteration in the Psalter Hymnal is the phrase "to the Lord of life" in place of the original "to the rising sun," in which "sun" was an ambiguous metaphor referring to God. The song's use at communion services probably dates from after the American Civil War. Miles Mark Fisher notes in Negro Slave Songs in the United States (1953),
[Originally the hymn] relates hardly at all to holy communion, which does not necessarily require early morning administration or a devotee who faces east. [This] it seems was a signal song of Virginia slaves during the eighteenth century who used it and similar ones to convene their secret meetings.
The text discerns participation in the Lord's Supper as a humble act in which we not only eat the bread (st. 1) and drink the wine (st. 2) but also praise our God (st. 3) "on our knees." The refrain ends with a prayer for mercy, an African American kyrie (see PHH 258) that reminds us of the tax collector's prayer in Luke 18:13.
Lord's Supper–during preparation for the sacrament or during distribution of the bread and wine.
--Psalter Hymnal Handbook, 1988
This hymn is a traditional spiritual, probably from the antebellum period in the American south. It may have been used by slaves to signal a secret gathering, since such assemblies were illegal. In that case, perhaps the original version of the song consisted of only the final stanza and the refrain. Some writers are of this opinion, and add that after the Civil War, the first two stanzas were added in order to make it a Communion hymn. However, an understanding of certain aspects of church history and tradition present another theory.
In the antebellum South, many slaves were required to attend church every Sunday at an early morning service, while their white owners attended the later service. The song refers to kneeling during Communion, which is common in certain liturgical traditions. It also refers to having one's “face to the rising sun.” Horace Boyer has pointed out that “it is an old tradition for Christian Churches to be aligned on an East-West axis so that early morning communion was always 'into the sun.' This was the tradition of Anglican church buildings almost universally until about 1800” (The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A, p. 614). Therefore, it is possible that this song was first sung by slaves in Episcopal Virginia for whom the experience of taking Communion would have involved kneeling toward the rising sun.
The text in modern hymnals tends to be fairly stable, with three stanzas and a refrain. The first two stanzas are about the main theme of the hymn – Communion – and the third is about praising God, which is a natural response to understanding God's mercy and grace of which Communion should remind us. The first two lines of the refrain have been explained above, and the last line may be a reference to the Kyrie.
The tune of this hymn developed with the words. It has an unusually large range for a spiritual of over an octave. A slow tempo is appropriate, with singing in unison. Try singing the first two lines of each stanza antiphonally.
This short Communion hymn can be combined with other related hymns or sung by itself. The hymn could be sung before Communion or as the bread and the wine is shared. A congregational accompaniment, including an alternate verse setting, is part of the collection “Laudes Domini.” There are many choral and instrumental arrangements suitable for use during a time of meditation. “Let Us Break Bread Together” is a medley of this spiritual with the modern tune BREAD OF LIFE for handbells with optional handchimes. A choral arrangement of “Let Us Break Bread Together” designed for Communion combines a setting of the Kyrie Eleison with this hymn in a simple texture and a devotional mood. A spirited arrangement titled “Let Us Break Bread” is for unaccompanied choir. “Spirituals for Piano” includes a setting of “Let Us Break Bread Together.”
Tiffany Shomsky, Hymnary.org