Not many years ago, the Eucharist used to be: The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. However, in more recent times, not much reference is made to the Eucharist as sacrifice, but more as a meal. Why not? It was during a discussion with Paul at his “Vidimus Dominum” blog that I came to understand why.
In his post, Paul gave me many quotes from the early Church Fathers as to the Eucharist being referred to as sacrifice. I came to realize that the reason for this is because the early Christians were already familiar with the Eucharist being a meal. A clear example is seen in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, where St. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for behaving inappropriately at the Meal. But the Church Fathers wanted to remind the Christians that the Eucharist is also a sacrifice, hence the many sayings and writings we can find.
In recent times, however, the Eucharist as sacrifice has been drummed into our heads so much that now we have forgotten the Eucharist is also a meal. [I might add tongue-in-cheek that Catholics know what a sacrifice it is to come for the Sunday Eucharist when we could be spending it with the family or at home sleeping. Yes, we Catholics know a lot about sacrifice!]
There is no doubt that the Church today still views the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Just recalling the words used in the Liturgy of the Eucharist is enough to remind us that the Eucharist is a sacrifice. But what is often forgotten is that the Eucharist is also a meal, which is about the people. In fact, the whole liturgy is about the people of God coming together to worship God.
Case in point, take a look at your parish celebration of the Eucharistic meal. Do we welcome newcomers to the community and make them feel at home? Do we know the names of the people sitting around us? We don’t; we are all strangers. The Eucharistic celebration today is a very individualistic celebration – me and God. We do not experience it as a meal the way the early Christians used to anymore.
Eucharist as Meal
We do not confuse the meal aspect of the Eucharist with nourishment, sustenance, refreshment or other similar aspects of food. Neither must we confuse this togetherness with mere cordiality, or the party spirit. The element that we must stress is ‘relationship’. The people eating and drinking together express a loving and trusting unity; they pledge their willingness to share with one another, to stand by one another, to belong to one another.
This is what is implied in the various portrayals of the meals that Jesus had as a messianic banquet – because when the Messiah comes he will take away all division of sin and men can live once again as brothers, sharing at the same table, communing in one life with God and with one another. It is no wonder that Jesus so often depicts the final stage of the kingdom in terms of a banquet (Luke 22:30; 13:23-30; 14:15-24).
Between the meals that Jesus had with his friends, and the final eternal banquet, come our Eucharist meals. In them we look to the past, to the saving sacrifice of Jesus whereby the division and enmity caused by sin was removed. But we also look to the future when we will be but one flock and one shepherd. Yet, in between, in the now of our celebrations, we experience the ‘first-fruits’, the initial fulfilment of that final banquet – the experience of being a community with God and with other men, in Christ, and the joy of this shared experience.
Practical applications of Eucharist as Meal
Taking this a bit further and applying it in practical steps:
1. We need to approach the Eucharist with a consciousness that we are invited guests, together with others. We are the Eucharist because we have been chosen to be there and we are happy to be there with other invitees. In some way, either before, during, or after the celebration (or better still, at all three), we need to be in conscious ‘communion’ with our brethren.
2. If we do experience any division or separation, these would need to be tackled first before proceeding with the celebration (hence the importance of receiving the sacrament of reconciliation before receiving the sacrament of holy communion. Reconciliation not just with God, but with our brethren in the Church as well). Through the celebration of the Eucharist, we will learn how to drop social and personal prejudices, caste and cultural barriers, difficult as these may be (1 Corinthians 10, 11)
3. But the community that we build is not only with the ‘in-group’ of Sunday Christians, but with all men; and hence we take our community building project with us to our homes, places of work, our friends and relatives, even our enemies and those who persecute us. This is the source of all missionary activity. Notice the parallel drawn by Mark in the two Multiplication accounts (Mark 6 and 8 – the second one is markedly a gentile celebration, reminding us that our Eucharist must move from a Jewish setting into the gentile world).
4. The bread and wine are also a symbol of man’s work, his struggle for existence, for food, clothing and shelter. Hence, sharing the bread at the Lord’s Table means throwing in our lot with the labouring masses of the world. Thier struggle and care is no more outside us – they are part of our concern and struggle. We express there, our solidarity with not just the poor; but also with all who work to build a more just and fraternal society.
5. The bread that we eat and the cup that we drink is the ‘body’ of Christ, the person of Christ. And now, since our baptism and very specially since our sharing in the Eucharist, we become the body of Christ. St. Augustine used to say: “You receive what you are, and become what you receive.” So, just as the body of Christ is broken and shared at the Eucharist, so must my body my person be broken and shared with all who are in need.
(continued on page 2)
Filed under: Eucharist