PERHAPS THE GREATEST GIFT that Jesus left behind to his fledgling Church, apart from the example of his own teaching, life and death, was the Eucharist. With justification, the Eucharist is often spoken of as the very centre of Christian living. There is a very real danger for Christian communities of collapsing or degenerating when deprived of the Eucharist for any length of time. No one can in effect remain a committed Christian without participation in the Eucharist.
Every persecuted Church realises this and struggles to keep the Eucharist alive in its communities. We have seen that in countless examples over the centuries, including our own. We have seen how Catholics in China went to enormous lengths to celebrate the Eucharist in spite of appalling difficulties.
In Ireland, people will point out lonely outcrops known as “Mass rocks” in remote parts of the country where persecuted Catholics secretly celebrated the Eucharist at the risk of death. In England, you will be shown the hiding places for priests on the run who went from house to house to provide the Eucharist for Catholics who risked martyrdom if they were discovered celebrating the “Popish Mass”.
It is sad, then, to find in our persecution-free societies today how many have lost this sense of the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian living. However, it is not altogether their fault. The Church itself must take some of the blame.
What do we do?
What do we do at the Eucharist? Basically we do two things:
a. We remember and we give thanks. The word ‘Eucharist’ is derived from a Greek word for ‘thanks’. Above all, we remember with deep gratitude all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, through his life, suffering, death and resurrection. We also remember and give thanks for all our own personal experiences of God’s love at work in our lives. It is a time to count our blessings. And we remember and give thanks not only for what happened a long time ago but most especially for what is happening in our lives at this time.
b. We come together to celebrate our being a community and a fellowship in Christ. The Mass, by itself, does not make community. It is the celebration of a community already existing. For, although the Eucharist is at the centre of our Christian life, it is not the totality of that life. It cannot survive in a vacuum. The Eucharist is a sacrament or sign of something which is bigger than itself – a living Christian community. That is why I like to say that the Eucharist is, by and large, the measure of a Christian community. From the way a congregation celebrates its Eucharist one can know immediately whether this is a living or a dying or dead community. A dead or non-existent community cannot have a living Eucharist.
Today is the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Whose Body? and whose Blood? The Body and Blood of Christ? Is it the body that died on the Cross? The body that walked and talked and taught in Galilee? Not really. The Body we celebrate today is the Body of the Risen Jesus. All of us who are baptised are members, constituent parts of that Body. Some of those members are alive and healthy and contributing to the overall life of the Body. Others are sick or dropping off, others are in need of healing or nourishment…
When we approach the altar table to receive Communion, the priest or minister says, “The Body of Christ”. When we say our “Amen” of assent in faith, we need to be aware that the Body we are receiving is that Risen Body of Jesus, of which each one present is a part. We may even say that we are, in fact, eating each other! If that sounds shocking then it is not surprising that the Jews, including some of Jesus’ own disciples were shocked, when he told them to eat his body and drink his blood.
For we do not just ‘receive’ the Body of Christ. It would be better to say that we share it. Paul emphasises this in today’s Second Reading, “The blessing-cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is a communion with the body of Christ.” ‘Body’ here means the whole Body of the Risen Christ – Jesus and the community of followers. He continues by saying that the one loaf which is broken and distributed is a sign that, “though there are many of us, we form a single body because we all have a share in this one loaf”. It is unfortunate that nowadays the sense of sharing the one loaf has been lost by the small unbread-like discs that are now normally used.
‘Communion’ is not just with Jesus but also with all those around us. That is why, before this ‘Communion’ we need to say the Lord’s Prayer in which we ask forgiveness of those we have offended. The Sign of Peace (oh, so artificial most of the time!) gives an opportunity for genuine reconciliation so that the unity expressed through ‘Communion’ may be genuine. (Have we not seen people deliberately avoid each other at the Sign of Peace and then piously approach the altar? They have forgotten the instructions of Jesus to stay away from the altar until we have reconciled with the brother or sister.)
Of course, it is difficult to have a sense of sharing in the one loaf as the sacrament of one Body, if, in fact, we are not one body. And we are not one body if, outside the church building, we are not united and caring for each other. One gets the impression that many come to Mass as a purely personal act. They come in and out as self-contained individuals. Some come late and leave early apparently with no sense whatever that this could be construed as a lack of respect for the celebrating community. Many, needless to say, complain of their Sunday Mass as a highly boring experience.
If we are not already a community before we enter the place where the Eucharist is being celebrated, we are not suddenly going to become a community after we come in. A parish where Mass-going is basically the only activity of its members is going to be a dead parish and its Eucharist will also be dead. As was said above, the Eucharist is the measure of the life of the parish. And a parish gets the Eucharist it deserves. Poor community, poor Eucharist. A vibrant Christian community cannot have a bad Eucharist. Maybe some of those who have stopped going to Mass are in fact acting more honestly because the Mass no longer is a source of nourishment for them.
A cautionary tale
There is a story of a parish where the people complained that it had died, so the pastor organised a final requiem Mass with a coffin in front of the altar. At the end of the Eucharist(?) the people were invited to file past the open coffin. When they looked in they each saw an image of themselves in a large mirror placed at the bottom of the coffin. Yes, if our parish is dead, if our Eucharists are boring, it is not just because of bad sermons or poor singing. The problem is more basic and everyone is partially responsible. So, before we give up going to Sunday Eucharist, we might ask to what extent are we responsible for the situation we complain about.
So our celebration of the Eucharist, of the Body and Blood of Christ, is not simply a commemoration of what happened to the ‘historical’ Jesus 2,000 years ago. It is – in a spirit of remembrance and thanksgiving – a celebration of what makes us what we are today. We today live, as Paul told the Philippians, sharing in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death and experiencing the power of his resurrection. The Eucharist is the celebration of a living Body, of which we are a part. It is up to us, with the help of Jesus, whether – to use the other image of Jesus – we are living branches on the parent Vine or whether we are dying branches that need to be lopped off and thrown away as unfruitful.
We need to celebrate as a people who become daily more and more aware that we are constituent parts of the Body of Christ. If people are to know Christ, it can only be through us, his Risen Body, that they will come to know him. The more we grow in this awareness of Christ’s living and acting through each one of us, the more meaningful will be our gathering round his table to share together, to eat and drink together the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord – which we are.
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