in our search for community with others we are often at odds with our fellow humans. We want the warmth and support of friendship but we frequently find ourselves fighting with those who are our friends.
Our parents bring us into the world. They feed, clothe, and protect us while we are helpless and defenseless, and yet from our first selfish wait as a neonate we struggle with them, demanding both their service and our freedom from their control. Our brothers and sisters are the closest people in the world to us, yet we compete with them for parental attention and affection as children, and often we continue these sibling rivalries into adult life. Our classmates in school are our allies against the "establishment" of parental and school regulations, yet the atmosphere of childhood and adolescent peer groups is frequently poisoned by envy and dominated by a narrowness and rigidity that permits little deviation from its strict norms. We spend much of the day with our work colleagues, and yet rivalry, envy, and competition often dominate our relationships with them. We will unite with our neighbors to defend the community against outside attack, but suspicion and distrust, as well as competition and envy, grow like weeds even on the most carefully landscaped blocks. We give our life, body and soul, to our spouse, but we hold back just enough so that in the home and in the marriage bed we feel like we are in an armed camp. And finally, to our sorrow, we find our children punishing us just as we punished our parents for living so close to us, loving us so much, and getting old. We search for community, we long for communion, and yet we are usually unfulfilled, often ending up in pain and suffering.
Still we do experience friendship often enough to know that it is possible among humans. Indeed, in those moments of communion, we suspect that self-giving affection is the only authentically human way to live.
In friendship, particularly in married friendship, we find that we are taken out of ourselves and united with the other. The experience is not usually as intense as the mystical interlude, but it is very strong nevertheless. In the highest moments of human friendship we forget about ourselves and we leave behind our fears, our inhibitions, our restraints; we remain fully who we are. Indeed we are more fully ourselves at those times than at most other times, and yet we exist for and through and in the other person. We are concerned about them in a way that we normally reserve for ourselves, and we are able to be ourselves for them in a way that is impossible in other circumstances. Despite the emotional intensity of such friendship, we do not grow weary from it. On the contrary, such communion relaxes and invigorates us. Instead of producing nervousness, uncertainty, and anxiety, interludes with our friends make us serene and self-confident. We go back to our other relationships with our esteem restored, our fears quieted, our eyes clear, and our hearts light. We are loved.
Such interludes are all too short. "O slowly, slowly run, you steeds of night" said a Roman poet about his awareness that all would be dissipated in the cold light of day. Still the experience of being loved and giving oneself in love in return is so rewarding that we are forced to believe that this is the way humans were meant to live.
The followers of Jesus experienced him as their friend. He said explicitly, "I do not call you servants, I call you friends." In spite of their competitions and rivalries, they still found that being part of his band of brothers was the most exciting and challenging experience of their lives. Their hearts burned within them, as the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus said. When they were with Jesus the apostles found that they were freer to be themselves than in any other circumstances. In the warmth of the attractiveness that flowed from Jesus it was not necessary—and was a waste of time—to pretend, to defend, to hide. Jesus seemed capable of complete dedication to them, and in their own narrow and unperceptive fashion, they responded with dedication of their own.
The high points of their years together were their community meals. Reclining around a table as the light faded after the labors of the day, they became conscious of their union with one another and with Jesus and his work, whatever that work might be. All Jewish meals had a certain ritual about them; they were all "mini" Passover dinners, they were all "thanksgivings" for the food they were in the process of eating and for the immense benefits the Lord Yahweh had bestowed upon his people. In their simple, relaxed, and, one supposes, frequently quite crude dinners together, the apostles gave thanks to God for the opportunity to be together with Jesus and with one another. The common meal was a celebration of their community, a reinforcement of it, and an expression of gratitude for its continued existence.
It was especially in such common meals that they were aware of the gift Jesus had made of himself to them. Indeed, in their last supper together Jesus went so far as to perform the task of a slave and wash their feet. In their Easter experience of the risen Lord they perceived what these common meals had meant. Not only had Jesus given himself to them, Jesus was a gift from God; he was God's self-revelation. In the life of Jesus, and especially in those interludes of intense friendship at the common meal, God had given himself to them. In the evening meals with Jesus, there had been communion between God and man. Now they understood what Jesus had meant when at the last of these meals together he had taken ordinary bread and ordinary wine and had identified himself with them. Now they realized what Jesus meant when he instructed them to continue these dinners in memory of him. The communion between God and man would continue at their common meals, because even though he was no longer visible to them Jesus would still be with them when they came together for the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine. And they would still give thanks to the Father in heaven for the gift of communion between themselves and God, as made known and revealed in Jesus.
So the common meals continued and became the central activity of the early Christian community. When they gathered to break bread together, they celebrated their communion with one another, and Jesus was present once again in their midst.
Humans have always had rituals in their religion. The idea was that when they came together to "celebrate the mysteries" they united themselves with the great saving events of the past from which their religion came. In their rituals they found communion with the deity who had revealed himself in these events, and they continued them and applied their power to their own lives. The great fertility rites of the nature religions of primitive cultures reenacted the primordial events which had brought life and vitality to the earth and linked the planting of crops, the tilling of the fields, the taking in of the harvest—ordinary activities on which the village depended for its life—with the great events of creation. The God who had produced life was present again in such rituals, continuing his work for the people. And thus his people ordered the life of the fields and cooperated with him in bringing forth the rich and fertile abundance of the harvest.
So there was nothing unique about the Christian notion that they could have communion with God, reenact his saving deeds, and continue his work through ritual. Nor were they the first to turn a spring festival into a celebration ritual that commemorated God's generous gift of life to his people. (In its origin, the Passover dinner itself was a spring fertility festival—the unleavened bread coming from the agricultural past of the people and the paschal lamb from its more distant pastoral years.) Nor did they invent the idea of a ritual dinner at which God or his representative was the guest, unseen but present for those who believed. Human religions abound with ritual meals, and many of the Jewish sects (such as those who lived in the monasteries by the Dead Sea) had much more elaborate ritual dinners than did the followers of Jesus.
The difference in the Christian ritual supper was not its form or its style but the events it remembered and continued and also the God whose presence was celebrated and with whom Holy Communion was kept. The events remembered and continued were the life, death, and resurrection of the same Jesus who had once reclined around the table with them (and in the earliest days, it was doubtless around the very same table). The God with whom they communed was the passionately loving, eagerly forgiving, gracious God who had given himself to them through his gift of Jesus. The Christians celebrated at the "Lord's supper" the gift of Jesus who was now present among them again though in an unseen way. They rejoiced at the incredibly good news that Jesus had brought them, that our fleeting hints about the gra-ciousness that seems to animate the universe were true beyond our wildest dreams. They commemorated and reenacted the great events of their lives together with Jesus, they ratified and reinforced their communion with one another through Jesus; and then they went forth to their difficult and dangerous lives, strengthened, encouraged, and invigorated for the work that was still to be done. They had taken both physical and spiritual nourishment from their meal together, and for it all they gave thanks, explicitly at the end of the meal but also and more importantly through the fact of the meal itself. Very early the meal of the Lord's Supper became known also by another name that emphasized its thanksgiving aspect—the Eucharist (from the Greek work meaning "thanksgiving").
All of this was natural and unselfconscious. They continued a custom that had begun with Jesus; they kept alive a tradition of ritual meals that had come down from their ancestors and that other strains of the heterogeneous religious pluralism of Second Temple Judaism also practiced. They gave thanks, they celebrated their unity with one another. Elaborate ceremony and even more elaborate religious reflection and theologizing would come later. Neither the ceremony nor the theology is necessarily bad, and both of them are certainly inevitable developments; but they become pernicious accretions when they destroy the simple fact that the Eucharist is a friendship supper eaten together by a group of human beings who share a common cause and have received a common gift, the self-disclosure of God in Jesus. The Eucharist is a common meal eaten by those who are united through Jesus in love for one another. The Eucharist is a ritual commitment to the possibility of unity in friendship among human beings.
Eating with a person is an act of great intimacy. For reasons that probably have to do with the dangers around the campfire in front of the caves of our prehistoric past, one normally shares a meal only with someone who is trusted. To invite a person to eat with one is a mark of trust, confidence, and affection; to accept an invitation is to return the same sentiments. There is an atmosphere of relaxation and enjoyment about the act of eating that, in principle at least, makes it the kind of act we share only with those we trust or love. We do not like to eat alone. We are ill at ease eating with strangers. We enjoy supper with our friends and family. A common meal is a sign of our intimacy, and it is attended with the vulnerability intimacy involves.
Common meals do not always work out that way. St. Paul had trouble with the Christians of Corinth who had become contentious and unruly scarcely a few decades after the death of Jesus. Our family suppers all too easily turn into chaos or intervals of silent-but-bitter reproach. Our great family dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas are often times when old wounds are opened and new wounds inflicted. But the reason for the easy corruptibility of the common meal is that we can hardly prevent ourselves from coming to it with great expectations. It is that moment at the end of the day or during the busy time of year in which we can slow down, relax, enjoy one another with ease and graciousness, to celebrate the love we feel for each other. Unfortunately there often isn't any love to celebrate.
The followers of Jesus were not likely to forget that at the Last Supper Jesus washed their feet. Nor were they likely to forget that on the next day he suffered and died for them. God, through Jesus, had revealed a love for his creatures that meant that he would serve them. The secret of keeping the community together after Jesus had gone would be to continue this generous, self-giving service that, in Jesus, reflected the love of the heavenly Father for all his creatures. If God had served unselfishly, so must they. That is the secret of sustaining friendship. One keeps an intimate relationship going by calculating, not ways of getting but ways of giving. One sustains affection, not by being served but by serving. One keeps the fires of love burning hot and bright, not by thinking about oneself but by being concerned with the good of the other. Paradoxically, one gets the most for oneself by being the most unselfish. Only he who gives himself generously to another can expect any generosity in return. The aim of love is not to possess the other but to be possessed by the other.
This is what the Christian Eucharist was supposed to be.
Having received the gift of God in Jesus, Christians give themselves to one another. The warmth and generosity of the Christian ritual meal was supposed to spill out and transform all the other common meals in which a Christian participated— particularly those with the ones he loved the most.
It is obvious that such a transformation does not always occur. The imagery of the Eucharist has been obscured, and many people do not realize what they are about when they take part in it. But this may not be the basic problem. The imagery was quite clear to the Christians of Corinth, yet we have Pauls testimony that they were still able to ignore it and continue fighting with one another. If the Eucharist does not transform completely the atmosphere of the other common meals that Christians eat, the reason is not that the message of the Eucharist is obscure. It is rather that the message of friendship through self-forgetting sacrifice is one we would much prefer not to receive. It has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found hard and not tried.
The Last Supper was connected (there is some debate about how) with the Jewish Passover. A purified spring fertility rite, the Passover celebrated the liberating and life-giving love of Yahweh for his people in the past. Holy Communion (or the Mass) is a paschal banquet, an Easter dinner. It is Easter every day of the year; for it celebrates, commemorates, and represents the Christ event that the followers of Jesus experienced on the first day of the week. It is the Easter experience all over again.
It also may be thought of as a wedding banquet in which the union between God and his people is celebrated. We mark great events in our lives with splendid meals. The nuptials between God and his people took place when God gave himself completely for his people (as a husband and wife give themselves completely for and to one another in marriage) in the summing-up acts of the last three days of Holy Week. The Mass is a wedding banquet precisely because it is Easter every day of the year.
The Eucharist, then, is the center of the Christian life because it is the ritual that contains in one package all the mysteries we have so far described—God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, cross and resurrection, salvation, and grace. If one wants to know what Christians believe about the nature and purpose of our existence, one need only consider the Eucharist. Life is about love—joyous, intense, generous, and self-giving love—that seeks not to be served but to serve others. God invites us to love by giving himself to us, and we respond by giving ourselves to him in the loving service of others. Holy Communion is not merely the reception of the host; it is a whole style of living. It is, like the rest of Christianity, not the performance of certain actions but rather a style of performing all actions, a style of generous, celebrating joy.
The Sunday Holy Communion of Christians may not always look very joyous or very generous or very loving. But then Jesus never expected perfection from his followers (a good thing, because he never got it). He does expect effort, effort at making the Eucharist a joyous, generous event, and effort at transferring the joy and generosity to all our common meals and to all the intimate relationships which are commemorated, and hopefully strengthened, in such meals.
Jesus identified himself with bread and wine. Christians have never doubted that Jesus was really present in the Eucharist, although some of the explanations they gave for the "how" of this presence have been deemed unacceptable as means of safeguarding the "fact" of the presence. In the first thousand years the explanations were mostly drawn from Platonic philosophy. Jesus was present in the Eucharist, St. Augustine told us (in words which would have doubtless got him into trouble in a later age if people were not careful to grasp his meaning properly) per modum symboli—in the manner of a symbol. He meant, of course, that Jesus was present in the Eucharist the way a platonic "idea" was present in a concrete particular. In a later and more Aristotelian era, the word transubstantiation ("change of substance") was used to convey the same or a similar idea. At the Council of Trent the word transubstantiation was used to defend the real presence of Jesus against some of the reformers who seemed not to sufficiently safeguard the fact of that reality to the Council fathers. (Whether they misunderstood what the reformers were about is another matter, and is not appropriate for this book.) However, the Council certainly did not intend to define the Aristotelian philosophy or physics on which the word was based. Contemporary theologians are struggling for a new set of philosophical terms that can explain the "how" of the real presence in words that our own era can grasp. However, it would be a mistake for a Christian to become so obsessed with the "how" of the real presence as to forget about the "fact"—especially the challenging implications and demands of that fact—and to ignore in his own life the "why."
The purpose of the reforms in the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council was to make much clearer to the Christian people the richness of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. It had looked much like an obscure (not to say on occasion a bizarre) performance that they attended as an onlooking audience. Now it is much more clearly a common commemorative action in which the people participate as full-fledged partners. The reforms have been accepted with approval by some seven-eighths of the Catholic population; but, it still must be said that Mass in a large church with a great number of people does not look much like a common meal at the end of the day with a tiny band of friends. Some of the "house" liturgies that have become common, however, seem to convey this core symbolism much more adequately. The Eucharist is always the ritual activity of the local church, even if on occasion it is celebrated by people from many different localities. It is rooted in the ground of a particular place, as every meal must necessarily be. You do not eat dinner in the whole world, you eat it in your home and then go forth into the world.
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