by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus took the bread, said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to them, and said: “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26

For centuries, we Christians have struggled to understand, appreciate and live the Eucharist. It is more than receiving sacramental Communion and taking time to have an intimate conversation with Jesus. While there may be many of us who regard that as the high point of going to Mass, it runs the risk of our missing a fuller understanding of Eucharist. In stating that, I do not wish to belittle those who see reception of Jesus in Communion and conversation with him as the highlight of their daily and Sunday Eucharist.
Back in the Middle Ages, many Catholics believed they were not worthy to receive Communion, yet, believing that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist, they jockeyed for position to get a glimpse of the consecrated host in the monstrance during Benediction, when the officiating priest blessed the congregation.
In order to understand Eucharist, we have to appreciate that the God who created the world and loved us all into life expressed a desire to enter into covenant with us, to engage us in a personal relationship built on faith, hope and love. Somehow or other, many of us human beings seemed to be frightened of a close relationship with a God who was the essence of holiness. There was something about us that resisted allowing ourselves to be dependent on God, about listening to God (being obedient to) who is also the essence of wisdom. Yet, the First/Old Testament gives accounts of how God did not give up on us human beings and reached out repeatedly to invite us into covenant relationship. Covenant relationship, which is witnessed in its ultimate form in the Trinity, the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, would always be offered to us. We see that invitation extended to humanity in the stories of Noah’s rainbow, the unlikely countless numbers of Abraham’s descendants, in the handing down of the Law to Moses, in the Ark of Covenant that was built and enthroned in David’s Palace. Moreover, a prototype of Eucharist was presented in the story of Melchizedek, King of Salem and priest, who offered bread and wine and extended a blessing on Abram and Abram’s God when Abram was returning successfully from battle. The ultimate covenant is, in fact, the Body and Blood of Christ given to the disciples at the Last Supper. We, in our turn affirm our side of the covenant every time we acclaim: “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come again in glory.” The word “covenant” in scripture has a meaning different from what we give it in contemporary modern languages. We are inclined to look at it as a contract between two parties who state to one another that the agreement they are making will stand so long as they both honour the conditions they have clearly set down. Implicit in the covenants God made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and others is God’s unconditional and oft-repeated assurance to the people of Israel: “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” God held firm to that covenant, while the people of Israel had a history of repeatedly turning away from it, repenting of their sinful decisions and accepting God’s invitations to return.
Today’s gospel-reading from Mark is an account of the establishment of God’s eternal covenant with us, the people of God, a covenant fixed unchangeably through the shedding of Jesus’ blood. (For the comments which follow, I am deeply indebted to insights and inspiration I have received over almost three decades from the late Bishop Geoff Robinson and Fr Frank Anderson msc, still very much alive and enriching our lives.)
In a staged approach to explaining how the ultimate in God’s love was expressed through Jesus in the institution of the Eucharist and confirmed in the shedding of his blood, Mark began with the account of the feeding of a 5000 strong crowd (Mark 6, 30-44) and followed that with a similar account of Jesus feeding about 4000 people who had gathered to listen to him in the pagan territory of Decapolis (Mark 8: 1-10). There are subtle differences between these two stories. In the second story, Jesus was the one who took the initiative, for it was he who recognised that the starving people in front of him were in need of spiritual nourishment in addition to food to sustain them. In both stories he involved the disciples in the feeding, signalling that they would have a significant role in taking the message of God’s love and care to the entire world – Jewish and pagan alike.
In presenting his account of the Last Supper, Mark employed a device that scripture scholars now refer to as framing, in order to underline the message he wanted to convey. The frame around the institution of the Eucharist is made up of two betrayal stories, one about Judas and the other a prediction by Jesus of how Peter would deny him. In contrast to the weakness of these two disciples and their empty protestations of loyalty, Mark presented Jesus as utterly trustworthy. When Jesus declared that one of the disciples would betray him, Mark recorded that all of them, one after another, asked: ”Not I, surely?” Then, when Peter asserted: “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you”, Mark simply stated: “And they all said the same.” Subsequently, Mark proceeded to underline Jesus’ trustworthiness in his commitment to his disciples that the bread he gave them and the cup of which they drank were his body broken and blood poured out for them and for the world. By framing the institution of the Eucharist between the treachery of Judas and the denial of Peter, Mark was assuring his community and all who would be disciples of Jesus that the Eucharist was food and drink for the nourishment of the weak, the fragile and the broken. It is indeed, as Frank Moloney S.D.B. states in his book of the same title “Bread Broken for a Broken People”.
Centuries later, St Augustine, in a sermon to the Church community over whom he presided, repeated Mark’s message of today’s gospel-reading when he reminded them of the real meaning of their participating in Eucharist: “You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are: your response is a personal signature affirming your faith…Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring true.” He went on to say to his priests that, in administering Communion to their people they would do well to say to each person coming to the altar: “Receive who you are and become what you receive – Christ’s body and blood given for the life of the world.” (Augustine on the Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, Sermon 272)
For us to participate in today’s gospel-reading, is to acknowledge that, in celebrating Eucharist in our parish community and in receiving Communion, we accept Christ’s invitation to us to become his body to nourish our world, making him present to one another through our commitment to respect, reverence and care for everyone we encounter.
PS: This week I offer for your reflection a poem by an American Franciscan, Scott Surrency: Can You Drink the Cup?

Can You Drink the Cup? Scott Surrency OFM
Can you drink the cup?
Drink, not survey or analyse,
Ponder or scrutinise – from a distance,
but drink. – imbibe, ingest,
take into you so that it becomes part of your inmost self,
and not with cautious sips
that barely moisten your lips,
but with audacious draughts that spill down your chin and onto your chest.
(Forget decorum – reserve would give offence.)
Can you drink the cup?
The cup of rejection and opposition. Betrayal and regret.
like vinegar and gall, pungent and tart, making you wince and recoil.
But not only that – for the cup is deceptively deep – there are hopes and joys in there too, like thrilling champagne with bubbles that tickle your nose on New Year’s Eve,
and fleeting moments of almost – almost – sheer ecstasy
that last as long as an eye-blink, or a champagne bubble;
but mysteriously satisfy and sustain.
Can you drink the cup?
Yes, you – with your insecurities, visible and invisible.
You with the doubts that nibble around the edges
and the ones that devour in one great big gulp.
You with your impetuous starts and youth-like bursts of love and devotion.
You with your giving up too soon – or too late – and being tyrannically hard on yourself.
You with your Yes, buts and I’m sorrys – again.
Yes, you. – but with my grace.
Can you drink the cup? Can I drink the cup?