WHAT THE EUCHARIST ISN’T
August 14, 2015
August 14, 2015
Other Christians often wonder at the Catholic take on the Eucharist, the modern descendant of the Breaking of the Bread ceremony which the gospels tell us was instituted by Jesus on the evening of his last supper. The Catholics have a deferential, almost cult-like devotion and loyalty to the Eucharist. Some Catholics awaken in the middle of the night to go to their churches to sit before the Eucharist, nakedly visible and enshrined in a splendorous golden vessel, for one or more hours before returning home to sleep. On Sundays, Catholic church-goers bow in reverence, unworthy to look upon the sacred bread as the priest repeats the sacred words and then raises it before them in consecration. Then they form long lines, like the Depression bread-lines, to receive their host—sometimes dropping onto both knees and crossing their arms over their hearts in reverence. So great is their love for Jesus, whom they believe to be substantially present in the white host which appears simply to be pressed, dried bread.
At the same time, however, if a person known not to be a Catholic were to present himself at mass before a bishop, or before a priest or deacon who is in conformity with all the regulations of the Catholic Church, to receive the Eucharist, he would be denied. If he asked for an explanation, he would be told that the Church refuses the Eucharist to anyone who does not know and believe in the true nature of the Eucharist—by which the Church means, anyone who has not been baptized into or declared allegiance to the Catholic Church and its pope.
And if a Catholic of public reputation, such as a politician, who has expressed reservations about or who has publicly opposed the Catholic Church’s moral teachings, such as the teachings on abortion, birth control, homosexual marriage, and physician-assisted self-euthanasia, were to present himself to such ministers for communion, he also would be refused on the grounds that he is an "infamous apostate."
Christians who are not Catholic, and some who are, wonder why the Church gives the Eucharist, which it believes truly to be the living presence of Jesus, the Savior of all humanity from its sinfulness, to some sinners—namely to those who are Catholic and not infamous apostates, but denies it to those sinners who present themselves faithfully and respectfully to receive the Eucharist, but who are not Catholic or who are infamous apostates. Doesn’t Jesus accept all who come to him?, they ask. Didn't Jesus say at his last supper that the Eucharist is offered for all who seek to live lives of Justice and who seek the common good? And these people add, "even if their good-conscience views on how these are to be achieved differ from the Catholic Church's?"
Observed from a perspective broader than simple acceptance of "the Church’s Magisterial and infallible teaching of the ‘objective truth’," the Catholic Church has painted itself into a theological corner which is crowded with contradictions and non-sequiturs. The Catholic Church, appearing in this case to be too self-righteous, denies the Bread to other baptized Christians although every other Christian denomination shares the memorial bread in open fellowship with whoever wishes to receive it. Why?, they ask.
We could trace the conflict back to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century and the Catholic Church’s recoil and counterattack through the Council of Trent (1545-1563.) We could analyze the arguments among the Transubstantiationists and the Consubstantiationists, and all the other "-ationists," but all that would come to nothing, except to the identification of the various opponents in the slug-fest. It would not lead us any closer to "absolute truth" because, alas, we cannot know absolute truth, even though it might be spoken to us by the mouth of God himself. We only know what we hear, and we error-prone humans must in honesty admit that often we hear meanings which might be personally relevant but which were not intended by the speaker.
And so, if the great ideal of Christian unity which came out of the Second Vatican Council is to be achieved, we must find a way to end the theological controversies and the alleged Catholic arrogance about the Eucharist.
Here is one suggestion, based entirely on the gospels and on acknowledged early Church history. (Background sources: Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, and James Carroll, Christ, Actually.)
In reality, the Eucharist is not in itself the object of worship. The Eucharist is, rather, an act or action of worshiping.
The original Eucharist, of course, was offered at the last supper of Jesus. In that event, Jesus took bread and shared it with those at table with him. In the sharing itself, Jesus was joining with his friends in prayer. Together they offered their prayer to God.
Jesus’ prayer was this: "This is my body." And he lifted up the bread to God. That is, expecting to be arrested and executed shortly, he was surrendering himself utterly to God, in an act of worship, for the well-being of others. His companions at table, in holding the bread throughout Jesus' prayer, were participating in Jesus' act of self-surrender by likewise surrendering themselves completely to God for the well-being of others. This was not an unfamiliar notion to them. It is the bedrock principle of the community of agape love into which Jesus had gathered them, enjoining them to "love one another."
And so, they understood that they were joining with Jesus in a prayer of self-surrender to God, as a way of moving toward their goal (and Jesus’) of personal union with the Father. Jesus was offering himself wholly to God, and they were, likewise.
The early Christian community understood that precisely this was happening in the Eucharistic event. When they gathered and broke bread, they experienced the presence of Jesus among them, praying with them. They, led by Jesus, offered their prayer of complete self-surrender to the Father every time they broke the bread.
The bread itself, to them, was Jesus joining with them as they lifted up the bread in the act of offering themselves to God, as Jesus did while he was alive among them. They remembered that Jesus was with them—and praying with them to God—at his last supper when they broke the bread. And, they believed, each time thereafter that they broke the bread with each other, he was with them then as well, praying with them this sacrificial prayer of self-surrender.
That is how the earliest Christian communities understood the Eucharist. It was a personal action of self-surrender in the heart of each Christian, which was accompanied by Jesus’ own presence as he himself prayed his endless prayer of self-surrender to God.
But by the time John’s gospel was being written, at the close of the first century, the Christian view of Jesus, and therefore, of the Eucharist, had changed. The Roman persecutions of Christians had begun in earnest. And perhaps more significantly, the hope in the Second Coming of Jesus, promised by Jesus to occur within the lifetimes of his disciples, was deflating as one apostle after the other died, while the heavens remained unblessed by the glory of God all the while.
The Christian community—weakening, falling into hopelessness, and needing sustenance more powerful than dismemberment by lions—found their hope in deifying Jesus. Jesus was no longer understood to be one sent by God, a man perculiarly "of God." Now, he was understood to be God himself, "the Son of God," uniquely deriving from the divine nature. And the Eucharist—continuing to be regarded as the "presence of Jesus among us"—was no longer understood as "Jesus in the act of praying with us to God." Now the Eucharist came to be understood as "Jesus, our God, is in this bread."
In this way, the bread itself became the object of worship, whereas formerly, the bread had been simply the vehicle of worship—the "outward sign," if you will, of inward commitment to God.
What followed thereafter was the weed-like development of Eucharistic theology, with all its attendant rituals and regulations, and then the sixteenth-century schism over—among many other things—the rarified theological understandings of the relationship between Jesus and the Eucharistic bread.
In our time, the way for Christian denominations to re-unite—if this is truly a heartfelt mission of the Catholic Church—is to give up defending the entrenched theological traditions and to revert to the early—and genuinely meaningful—notion that the Eucharist is not an object, but an action of the heart—a verb, and not a noun. The Eucharist is joint worship of God with the living presence of Jesus, and the Eucharistic bread is the vehicle which we use to join with Jesus continuously in offering ourselves entirely to the will of the Living God.
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